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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.


Bibliography :


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.