Papaw on MLK: Historical Memory

Here’s an exciting fact: On Saturday May 7, 2011 I officially graduated from the University of Indianapolis with a BA in Communication (nothing cum laude.) Per usual, the graduation ceremony was filled with an electric anticipation and a general sense of relief. I even lucked out and got a spot in the first two rows, just by taking one extra Spanish class. (Let that be a pro-tip to you up-and-coming learners who may be reading this: take what you’re good at and lots of it, you may end up with a BA and a first class seat at graduation.) The excitement is compounded when you consider we were part of the University’s largest graduating class ever, including over 940+ recipients.

Glitter .gifs Make Everything Exciting

The only disappointment: Our commencement speaker was someone I had NEVER heard of…ever. The Reverend Dr. Kent Millard- I came to find out via the program- was a graduate of Boston University’s seminary and was a local United Methodist minister. After receiving the honorary Doctor of Divinity degree- graciously granted by the University of Indianapolis- Dr. Millard proceeded to address the graduating student body with a speech entitled “Passion+Vision=Transformation.” In the allegorical address, he related to us a winded story about his efforts with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, where he helped the Civil Rights movement advocate for voting rights for black citizens in the south.

Admittedly, I was not interested in this speech. The story itself was labored, and Dr. Millard was a bit too stentorian for my taste. He even relayed a story to us that he himself admitted had nothing to do with the topic. All I wanted to do was graduate, not listen to how someone had mistaken him for Rudy Giuliani on a plane. I apologize Dr. Millard, I’m sure your services are enthralling on Sunday mornings, but I wasn’t feeling this at all.

After a surprisingly quick distribution of diplomas- marked by back-flips, animal calls, and an explosive audience- I regrouped with my family to get ready to go have lunch. I was very fortunate to be able to share the day with my father-who is currently working in the United Arab Emirates- my mother and sister, who live in Wisconsin, and my paternal grandparents who drove up from southern Indiana. We all scattered to our vehicles and headed towards Greenwood to enjoy some City Barbeque. I got paired up with my step-grandfather (whom I refer to as Papaw) and we set off.

Where were you Ace?

On the way to eat, I decided to strike up a conversation with my Papaw, whom I don’t often get the chance to talk to. I asked him about the freshest topic on my mind: the speech given for our commencement. Papaw gave me a frown and spoke quieter than usual, answering “You know, a speech like that isn’t good for preachers. And I didn’t care much for Dr. King, he was an agitator.” I was taken aback at this comment, as my Papaw is a very progressive thinker and a pastor himself.

Then I thought about it, our historical memory is quite different, and he likely had many reasons to feel the way he did. I could agree with him about the speech not being what I had expected, but I have a great admiration for Dr. King, so I decided to investigate further and do some critical thinking.

The Definition

Historical memory (often referred to as collective memory) is understood as a representation of the past shared by a group or community, as defined by Wulf Kansteiner in the article “Finding Meaning in Memory: A Methodological Critique of Collective Memory Studies.” If we take this definition into account when analyzing the differences between my generation and my Papaw’s generation, the difference in our perception of Dr. Martin Luther King comes to light.

The Non-Violent Agitator

Let us first analyze the general historical memory of Dr. King. None of us could dispute that a man who has a national holiday recognizing his service to both human rights and the Civil Rights movement should be a paragon of righteous citizenship. It is common consensus that the non-violent tactics of Dr. King (though not revolutionary) were groundbreaking and powerful tools for those who otherwise lacked a voice in America. However, how many of you are aware that Dr. King also tackled (and was ridiculed for tackling) subjects such as the Vietnam War? Or that he was assassinated in Memphis as a martyr for the union rights of civic hygienists (trash collectors)?

So often do we let the stream of historical memory wash our glorified heroes into a realm of purity and cleanness that we forget about their experiences here on Earth. We tend to forget that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t erase the fact that these people were human beings, and affected the world in very human ways. After his assassination, there were great riots in most major cities in the U.S., many of which were not calmed even after the eloquent eulogy by Robert Kennedy right here in Indianapolis a few hours afterwards.

Powerful and Somber

The Difference

The plight of my step-grandfather was another thing entirely. How could a man of such great magnitude be seen so negatively in the eyes of another man with just as great a heart? How could there be such a divide between two men so devoted to God and country and the rights of all humanity?

Here’s the context: My papaw was a share-cropper whose parents bought land in Indiana at the end of the pioneer age of Western expansion in America. He served dutifully in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and was wounded in France. He spent the rest of the war recovering from a neck wound (which is still visible, and the bullet lodged within still sets of airport alarms.) When I asked about segregation in the service, he responded, “I didn’t get the pleasure of serving with any colored men in my division, but I knew they were there doing the same work as me. In the hospital in London, I saw a lot more of them, and we all were in it together.”

After the war, my papaw attended seminary and was ordained a Primitive Baptist minister (which is more akin to the original Anabaptist movements than what you might stereotype as some crazy Southern Baptist affiliation.) In addition, he worked as a certified electrical engineer, truck driver, house builder, and general handyman. All the while, he preached a rhetoric of peace, tolerance, and divine deliverance while surrounded by segregation.

A Shameful Reminder

So, how could my papaw consider the great Martin Luther King a threat or even a nuisance? The real history, that which is beyond our collective memory, explains it all. In a time in our nation’s history when the growth of the Klu Klux Klan was at its all-time height in the south, men like my grandfather were singled out for their ideas of tolerance and peace (and more specifically for not joining the Klan.) They were persecuted and discriminated against just as harshly as their colored counterparts and shielded themselves and their families from harm as best they could.

It was assumed, then, that any preacher from a Klan controlled territory who left to protest with the rabble-rousing Dr. King is Selma would have his crops burned and an immolated effigy planted outside his farmhouse. In Papaw’s eyes, the risk was not worth the benefit, and the inciting words of Martin Luther King were not doing him any favors.

So, why was it then so easy for Dr. Millard to go down to Selma, march knowing that his life was at risk, and come away finding the “outcome of passion lead to transformation in Klan members?” Simple: historically the presence of the KKK in Boston has been very minor, and never linked to violent acts. Although more active now in the area than ever (see gay marriage and protesting rights in Boston), in the 1960’s, Dr. Millard had very little reason to see Dr. Martin Luther King as an agitator, and only risked his own bodily harm in advocating the movement.

The Takeaway

If there is one major lesson I’ve learned while pursuing a Liberal Arts degree, it’s that ‘critical thinking’ is just that: critical. By allowing myself to fall victim to the collective memory of our ever more spoon-fed and co-dependent society, I had forgotten that the world is seen uniquely by each and every one of us. We all have schema tailored to our individual experiences and cannot possibly begin to understand the world views of others if we have not lived the lives they have.

Instead of trying to understand my step-grandfather’s concerns over Civil Rights in the 1960’s, I wrote him off and played into my own beliefs cultured by an inaccurate or dismissive historical memory. It wasn’t until I went through some mental digestion and good quality critical thinking that I realized his points made perfect sense in the grand scheme of things.

It All Makes Sense!

Before you get to judging another person’s view of the world, think about how things like historical memory directly affect you. Never hesitate to ask ‘Why’ and ‘How’, and as always, question what you are told, what you read, and what you see. By doing the research and going through the time tested learning process, we can all better understand the world around us. This education will almost certainly work towards a greater tolerance in our divided world.

Don’t take what you know for granted! If you’ve think you’ve got something good to say write it down and share it (perhaps in a blog.) Contribute to the progression of thought, not uninformed prejudice. Let this build a universal sense of love and acceptance among us all as the human community.  As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door to ultimate reality”

Our collective knowledge will always out-value our collective memory.



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