Today, 50 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King is more glorified than ever. In his honour, the conservative US President Ronald Reagan had already introduced a national holiday in 1983. The memory of the social revolutionary was politically instrumentalized, King was appropriated from all sides. But in order to tell the story of the reconciled nation, the dissident had to be erased from memory.
What remained was a patriot, a founding father, an extraordinary US American, who could only have been produced by an extraordinary country. A black man who dreamed of racial equality and rightly trusted that his countrymen would make it a reality. A man who served his country and recognized its unique democratic potential. On the pedestal of the monument inaugurated by Barack Obama in Washington in 2011 there is no reference to racism or racial segregation. On the capital’s National Mall, where the great American is commemorated, visitors are better off remembering the dream King conjured up at the 1963 rally.
King is immortalized on stamps, above the portals of universities and schools, on the National Mall, in picture books, in nice stories to polish up the image of the USA abroad, in the White House – and in an advertisement for SUVs. That he was a critical mind is buried under the burden of official honors and commercial exploitation.
The rewriting of history began with the fact that the black revolution of the 1950s and 1960s was reduced to the demand for formal equality – as if the blacks in the southern states were solely concerned with the right to vote and an end to legal discrimination. In the end, they were fobbed off with a deceptive package in 1965: They tried to make them believe that with the end of legal discrimination, equality had already been achieved. King was dismayed by this sleight of hand.