Skip to main content

Martin Luther King and a new reconstruction

Resource type: News

The Washington Post | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

LAST FALL, The Post reported that an American history textbook used in Virginia schools contained the untrue statement that thousands of black soldiers had fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. A panel of historians then reviewed the book and found in it dozens of errors on a variety of subjects. It was a disturbing development that caused quite an uproar, but it was also something that could be easily enough dealt with.

Not so with a far more disturbing and tragic distortion that characterized the teaching of American history for a century or more in much of the nation. It involved the malign portrayal of African Americans, newly freed from slavery and setting out for the first time to exercise their rights as citizens of a country where many of them had lived for generations. This was a short-lived period of freedom and political power, soon ended by Southern whites, with Northern whites’ acquiescence, through violence, intimidation and economic coercion. And when it was over, the depiction of that period in history came to be one of widespread venality, incompetence and worse on the part of black legislators, governors and local officials. This version of Reconstruction became standard fare in history texts and was popularized in widely seen films such as “Birth of a Nation” and (less viciously) “Gone With the Wind.”

“The portrait of the era that so long held sway originated in the contemporary propaganda of southern Democrats opposed to black suffrage and officeholding after the Civil War,” writes the historian Eric Foner. “It gained national legitimacy when it became part of the overall process of reconciliation between North and South. . . . [T]he Civil War came to be remembered as a tragic family quarrel among white Americans in which blacks had played no significant part, and Reconstruction as a regrettable time of ‘Negro rule.’ “

Dr. King, celebrated on this day two days after his birthday, came to prominence in the mid-20th century as the foremost figure in what became a new Reconstruction. Part of it was a national drama that included working people boycotting the buses in Montgomery, Ala., because a dignified and determined woman named Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Then there were the efforts, in different places and by different people, to take a seat at a lunch counter, ride an interstate bus, stay in a motel, register to vote. By the time of Dr. King’s death, little more than a dozen years after the bus boycott, the federal government had legislated open accommodations and protection for the voting rights of all Americans. Racial prejudice, openly expressed, was gradually becoming unacceptable in this country.The history of black Americans since Emancipation is being revisited by a generation of historians who have found in it a touching and tragic story of aspirations and efforts for education, justice and equality, most of them crushed by overwhelming force and political power. But the most important figure in this reconsideration was not a historian; it was a preacher, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As Martin Luther King and many others well knew, history in the hands of one’s enemies can cripple and destroy. It can be a huge impediment to progress. In leading a movement that itself made history, that presented the country with a modern-day morality tale it could not ignore, Dr. King helped topple that barrier, to shed light on a dark past and to bring new hope for the future. The preacher had powerful uses for a biblical maxim he had no doubt uttered from the pulpit many times – that the truth shall make you free.

Related Resources


civil rights, Martin Luther King