With Gandhi, Martin Luther King is today a global icon. Indeed, not only in the United States but in the world at large only die-hard far-right militants would think of taking a critical view of the author of “I Have A Dream”. With hindsight, a careful historical appraisal of his writings and his actions does suggest, however, that King was far from being the consensual figure he is mostly eulogized as today. The construction of a consensual memory has primarily helped Americans to feel good about themselves and about the history of “race” there, which Studs Terkel aptly calls “the American Obsession”. Remembering King in a certain way has been instrumental in the perpetuation of “The American Dream” over decades.
What follows is a thematic and broadly chronological list of issues discussed in this course :
1/ A southern anomaly to save the American Dream ? the memory of King as a primarily Southern figure.
2/ Northerners’ embarrassment and irritation : King’s northern and western sojourns as forgotten facts ?
3/ M.L.K. in L.A : heeding King’s warnings about the L.A. police just before the urban riots at Watts (L.A.).
4/ Constructing Manichean memories : Good guys, bad guys : Toning down M.L.K’s radicalism, exaggerating Malcolm X’s.
5/ A close-up on M.L.K’s failures in Chicago, Richard J. Daley’s turf.
6/ M.L.K’s anti-capitalist dimension.
7/ The development and crystallization of celebrations of King’s heritage.
8/ Martin Luther King’s Day since 2000 : on the third Monday of January. Debates and controversies.
9/ King and Obama.
Assignments will deal with commentaries on documents tackling the above questions.
Jackson, Thomas F., From Civil Rights to Human Rights, Martin Luther King and The Struggle for Economic Justice, Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
Lassiter, Matthew & Crespino, Joseph, The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2009.
Laurent, Sylvie, Martin Luther King : Une Biographie, Paris : Seuil, 2015.
Lukas, J. Anthony, Common Ground : A Turbulent in the Life of Three American Families, New York : Alfred Knopf, 1985.
Marable, Manning, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention, New York : Viking Press, 2011.
Sugrue, Thomas J., Sweet Land of Liberty : The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North, New York : Random House, 2010.
Terkel, Studs, Race : How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, New York : The New Press, 1992.
Von Hoffman, Nicholas, Radical : A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, New York : Nation Books, 2010.
Some scholarly articles will be available and discussed together in class.
- Teacher: Olivier Esteves