Jennifer J. Yanco. Misremembering Dr. King: Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2013. 111 pp. $15.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-01424-5.
Reviewed by Wesley Hogan (Center for Documentary Studies)
Published on H-1960s (December, 2014)
Commissioned by Zachary Lechner
Bulldozing the Forest Dr. King Planted
Here is a succinct eighty-one-page reminder that
Americans currently experience collective amnesia when
it comes to Martin Luther King Jr. Immersed in his sanctification
via the King holiday, the new King Memorial in
Washington, DC, and thousands of schools, boulevards,
and events named in his honor, King himself is lost. It’s
a normal human response, notes Jennifer Yanco: when
someone dies, “we are immediately drawn to memories
that comfort us and reassure us that we have done well
by the departed.” Still, it is only by “engaging with the
thorny details, the things that we can’t tie up neatly,” she
notes, that we “do a better job of being human” (p. xiii).
It is these thorny details about King that she engages
in the book’s three chapters: “What We Remember,”
“What We Forget,” and “Why It Matters.” Charlie
Mingus once famously noted that creativity is not just
playing something strange or new: “Anyone can do that.
Making the simple complicated is commonplace.” The genius
came from “being as simple as Bach. Making the
complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
Jennifer Yanco, an African language and policy scholar at
Boston University, here makes a case for King as a political
At its center, she argues, King’s work held high the
need for each person to live with dignity and respect.
The three barriers to that, laid out time and again in his
work and writings, were the “triplets” of “materialism,
militarism, and racism” (p. 2). Yanco notes Americans
“have all but ignored the issues about which Dr. King
spoke out most forcefully.” To the contrary, as a nation
we’ve gone backwards, becoming more warlike and promoting
higher extremes of inequality. “If someone devotes
his life to planting trees,” she notes, “its disingenuous
to claim to honor his memory while bulldozing the
forest. Yet it sometimes seems that that is just what we
are doing to Dr. King’s legacy” (p. 21).
Why not remember these brutally clear triplets?-
Yanco finds clear intent behind our inaccurate memories
of King. When we hear the “I Have a Dream” speech section
on black and white children walking hand in hand,
it reinforces “our national illusion of progress,” which is
the opposite of what King intended–a call for “pursuing
a more just society” (p. 5). The speech excerpts almost
never include King’s observation that “America has given
the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come
back marked ’insufficient funds.”’ We don’t hear about
“images of Dr. King at antiwar rallies in New York or
Chicago, where he spoke out forcefully against the government’s
military engagements” (p. 6). Nor do we see
images of him in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood, “decrying
the economic conditions and police brutality that
provoked the rebellion there.” The national holiday celebrations,
street and high school commemorative naming,
and space in the nation’s capitol monuments “permit us
to claim that we honor him, while at the same time erasing
and thereby dismissing his overriding concerns.” Media
and corporations play a role in this distortion, but the
public bears responsibility as well: if we continue to be
served a watered-down version of Dr. King’s life, it is
at least “partially because we have not questioned it and
demanded otherwise” (p. 7).
King’s understanding of how far the United States
had come divided progress into two phases. The first,
1956-66, was in his words “a struggle to treat the Negro
with a degree of decency, not of equality” (p. 14). The
next step was to commit fully to help African Americans
“out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.”
Yanco notes that not only did Americans never embrace
the second step; over the last several decades, some
of the “formidable gains” of the first phase have been under
severe attack (p. 16).
With tremendous economy of language aimed at a
broad audience and drawn from both primary and secondary
sources, Yanco lays out the cost of militarism,
data on inequality, and a sobering parade of facts on how
stunted our progress is toward color-blind public policy.
On militarism, she examines the consistency of King’s rejection
of war between 1957 and 1968, reminding us that
he demanded not just an absence of war but “government
policies clearly aimed at the vigorous pursuit of peace”
and “offensive action in behalf of justice” (pp. 27, 29).
Inequality that had been lessened by the programs of the
1930s and 1960s is now as extreme as it has ever been. We
reactivate racism “on a daily basis through an elaborate
web of institutions,” she finds: “The education system,
religious institutions, the justice system, the transportation
system, housing, public safety, social services” (p.
69). Each “work in their own ways to deny society’s resources
to those deemed outsiders,” and are now so well
established that they require “very little to keep it going–
no more than the silence and complacency of the population.”
Such observations may cause some to see Yanco’s
work more as cultural criticism than proper history. But
by raising a fundamental point about Dr. King’s legacy–
the nation has moved farther from his dream, not closer
to it–she creatively highlights the best aim of history: improved
For Yanco, it is obvious that benefits would accrue
to the whole nation if it were to set its sights on carrying
out his vision. To be sure, “Institutions have lives of
their own and are resistant to change,” she observes (p.
72). “If we are to transform them into institutions that
serve everyone and not just the few it will require major
changes in our everyday behaviors and concerted efforts
on the parts of each of us.” As an experienced white activist
in antiracism, she notes that for whites who have
“long benefited from preferential access to housing, employment,
education, and other social goods,” the work in
front of them is to “sit with feelings of discomfort” and
follow King’s teaching to “tell each other the truth about
who and what have brought the Negro to the condition
of deprivation against which he struggles today” (pp. 72-
73). “Repairing centuries of marginalization and exclusion
comes with a high price tag,” Yanco writes (p. 76).
Whites resist because it “masks the shame involved in acknowledging
the gross inequalities of the current state
of affairs and white complicity.” The prophetic vision
of King, coupled with his call to actively pursue justice,
is something Americans have turned away from to “follow
a path of extreme materialism enforced by militarism
both at home and abroad” (p. 79). To Yanco, a good antidote
to such errant path would be to “revive the memory
of Dr. King’s leadership and use it as a guide to action”
As a focused meditation on the widening gap between
King’s message and the reality of life in American
society, Misremembering Dr. King succeeds, and does so
eloquently. As a potential guide, it is decidedly less helpful.
One can only wish Yanco had engaged the many
debates among activists and social movement scholars
about innovative forms of organizing. A broader understanding
of the civil rights movement reveals that history
provides better answers than prophetic leadership to the
question of how best to challenge self and society for the
purpose of fulfilling King’s dreams.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at:
Citation: Wesley Hogan. Review of Yanco, Jennifer J., Misremembering Dr. King: Revisiting the Legacy of Martin
Luther King Jr.. H-1960s, H-Net Reviews. December, 2014.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-
No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
"This important book reminds us of Dr. King’s blueprint for changing the social political economic structure of our culture and shows us how we have adopted ways of being, seeing, believing, and living that go contrary to the core message of Dr. King.
"Recalls a Dr. King more militant and pointed in his critique of American society . . . . For many readers this will be something of a shock."
—Jack M. Bloom, author of Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement
"Remembering" Can Be Dangerously Simple
As one who was actively allied with the Boston-area leaders who represented Dr. King and the SCLC. I am pleased with Jennifer Yanco’s fine study which reminds us of the dangers of “misremembering”. Carefully researched, with sources noted, “Misremembering Dr. King” is appreciated for its reminder of both the breadth and depth of Dr. King’s witness. I am especially pleased that she recognizes the strategic influence of Bayard Rustin in the movement. Our day needs constantly to be reminded that Dr. King’s assassination came just one year after his strong denunciation of the Viet Nam escapade. It beckons our strengthened resistance to a new day of military-industrial collaborations which threaten the human justice he demanded.
—Horace Seldon, February 14, 2014, Kindle edition, Amazon verified purchase
"Long Overdue. Thank heavens for this book. Over the last few years, I have often wondered what Dr. King would have said about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this book, with its strong reminder of Dr. King's opposition to militarism, answers that question. It should be required reading in American schools.."
—NMP, February 25, 2014 Format: paperback
"A lucid and eloquent analysis of the ways that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s messages and historical record have been sanitized and distorted."
—Julia Mongo, Host/Producer, Africa Kabisa, WMBR 88.1 fm, Cambridge, MA