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On MLK Day, Let’s Tell the Whole American Story

5 minute read

Meeks is the President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; Walker is the President of the Ford Foundation.

All across the country, from New Orleans to New York, from Charlottesville to Philadelphia, our nation has been engaged in a necessary and long overdue conversation over the ways our history is represented in public spaces and culture. This conversation is reflected in the many impassioned debates over the meaning and propriety of Confederate memorials in our midst. But it is also seen in today’s protests over the National Anthem, in the movement to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, and in movies like Hidden Figures, which brings the brilliant black NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson into the spotlight. Its crux is also the central question animating Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: Who tells your story?

The question is not merely rhetorical: how we understand and represent our American past shapes both our present and our future. The “great force of history,” James Baldwin wrote a half-century ago, at the height of the civil rights movement, “comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” In short, history is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of our world and our place in it. So we have to get it right.

Yet, for too long and in too many ways, public celebrations of our American past have been relentlessly — and often deliberately — monochromatic. The numbers tell a damning story: women and minorities are woefully underrepresented on historic registers at the federal, state and local levels. San Francisco and New York City — two of America’s most progressive cities — collectively boast 212 monuments to historic figures. Only eight of those memorialize women. Meanwhile, Philadelphia just erected its first statue dedicated to a specific African American — scholar and activist Octavius Catto — in its 335-year history. And we all know of the countless roads, schools and public squares named for or featuring Confederate generals — eliding the experience of the four million enslaved persons who won their freedom during the Civil War.

In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here – Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King lamented the impact these silences have on our understanding of ourselves. Citing the stories of overlooked African-Americans like Dr. Charles Drew, who was a pioneer in separating blood plasma and developed America’s first large-scale blood bank, and Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in our nation’s War of Independence, Dr. King rued “America’s penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him invisible and making his contributions insignificant.” As a result, he argued, black children “have been denied a knowledge of their heritage” and white children “through daily miseducation are taught that the Negro is an irrelevant entity in American society.”

King is right. Just for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a young black person growing up today in Richmond or Charleston. What does it feel like to walk past statues glorifying the Confederate past, while seeing little or nothing of your African-American heritage reflected in the public spaces of her community? That experience sends a message about the kind of places, the eras of history and the people from our collective past who are elevated. As Sheryl Sandberg has often said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

That is why it is time that our public spaces reflect the full and true American story. Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia recently made this point as he unveiled the Catto statue at City Hall. “If you can’t respect people for what they’ve contributed to the common society,” he argued, “then you can’t respect people who are living here today.”

So, in the wake of this national debate — and the change that’s coming with it — we see an enormous opportunity to take positive action to overcome these lingering disparities. The fate of Cconfederate monuments should not be the end of our action, but the beginning of building something better. It’s time to excavate and elevate the American stories that have been buried by time, ignorance, and injustice. We believe the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a multi-million dollar joint effort to highlight and celebrate places and stories that evoke centuries of African-American activism and achievement can do just that. Through the fund, we are providing matching grants to restore African-American historic sites across the country, supporting research and volunteer efforts to celebrate black history and working to elevate the stories of underappreciated African American figures like Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made woman millionaire, and the brilliant civil rights lawyer Pauli Murray.

This is just a first step in a national reckoning and re-education effort that requires seeing the full American story represented in our public spaces and collective culture. And this first step should be followed by others that lift up and represent the stories of all of America’s other underrepresented voices. In the 21st century, every one of America’s Hidden Figures, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and ability, should get their due.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day dedicated to the legacy and history of a man who committed himself to sharing and growing the civil rights movement, we must remember that what we choose to save and celebrate has a direct impact on people’s understanding of themselves. It shapes us and sends a message about what is possible in our own lives. And it has the power to influence and inspire generations to come.

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