Seeing Double: The Battle for the Past

In January, the U.S. National Archives released a photo of the 2017 Women’s March as part of an exhibit on women’s activism. At first, there seemed to be nothing unusual about the photo, but at a closer glance, observers realized that it had been altered. Investigation revealed that posters and signs containing messages critical of President Donald Trump had been blurred out or erased. Keep in mind, the National Archives is the government body officially tasked with creating the nation’s historical record. The government-official history of the Women’s March almost became this doctored photo, undermining one of the main purposes of keeping a historical record in the first place. Right now, it seems as though we face not only a problem of fake news but also fake history, and it’s far from a new issue. 

At this moment, people across the country are rewriting history in order to justify their views. These actions disrespect figures from the past, and victimize those in the present. Take the man who we celebrate annually on the third Monday of January, Martin Luther King Jr. Since his death, MLK’s legacy has been systematically warped. Most of you are probably familiar with the narrative of MLK as the dreamer who, in the words of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, “gave his life to right the wrong of racial inequality.” 

I was taught this story in school, and it’s a compelling one — and indeed a true one. The only problem is that it’s incomplete. MLK’s vision extended far beyond ending racial inequality. King said that “the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” Not many schools teach that to their third-grade students. In fact, during the last years of his life, MLK launched the so-called ‘Poor Peoples’ Campaign’ intended to help the poor of all races through measures like a universal basic income, affordable housing, and guaranteed employment. None of these initiatives were implemented, and the legacy of poverty continues to haunt America, so it’s often convenient to avoid discussing MLK’s association with economic issues altogether. It makes him look far too ‘political’. 

In fact, MLK has sometimes even been taken completely out of context. Take that disastrous 2017 Dodge Ram Superbowl commercial, which used snippets of an anti-capitalist MLK sermon to sell cars. Even the quote on MLK’s Washington DC memorial – “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness” are taken out of context from an MLK speech about the dangers of centering movements around individuals. These misleading quotes diminish the causes and memory of MLK by undercutting their modern significance. 

Three years ago, I had the honor of meeting a social worker who had met and marched with MLK in North Carolina. When I talked with her about MLK Day, Rachel shook her head and sadly said, “they just don’t get Martin right at all.” 

King is only one person to have been harmed by historical vandalism. Rewriting history makes all of us victims. Some people have to undergo the agonizing experience of seeing their life’s work corrupted. Many of those who campaigned with MLK, for instance, are constantly told that they were marching not for an end to poverty, but for something completely different. When the world we live in is built on falsehoods, we are lesser. MLK himself said that we are made by our history. What does that make us if large parts of our recorded history are lies?

Destroying history takes away our ability to learn from the past. Vietnam War veterans will recount moving stories about the pointlessness and brutality of the war. However, some politicians, like George W. Bush, have instead tried to glorify the war’s events. This rewrite of America’s involvement in Vietnam helped the nation forget the costs inherent in far off interventions, and made us all the more eager to intervene in the Middle East after 9/11.  History teaches us many lessons. If you erase those lessons, you change our lives, and our future, for the worse. 

So what can we do to recall the past? We all rely too heavily on filtered and manufactured sources like social media and television. For some parts of history, that’s all we have, but for events like the life of MLK, the Vietnam War or the Women’s March, the real historical sources live among us, unheeded. Every family has people who witnessed some of the world’s momentous events. We need to resurrect the tradition of listening to others in order to find the unfiltered past. Human history began as an oral tradition, where people sat around campfires and heard stories straight from the mouths of their parents and grandparents. The stories they told didn’t always agree, and interpreting them was not always an easy task, but they each held their own truth. 

Each of us holds a key to the past within us. I hope that someday my grandkids will listen to my experiences of living in the age of Trump. I think I’ll have a thing or two to say about it. Everyone has stories, funny, dramatic, moving or heartbreaking. We often don’t think of these stories as history, but they are. We need to start listening to our parents’ and grandparents’ stories now, in the hopes that in time, our own stories will be remembered as we remembered theirs. 

If we continue to forsake oral history and rely on unaccountable sources for our history, neither the past nor the present will be safe. The very values many of us hold most dear — freedom, justice, democracy — become vulnerable, because they can be attacked in the most insidious way imaginable: by blurring them out or saying that they never existed at all. This sort of thing happens all the time and often only the people who lose their voices are the ones who object. 

That’s why I advise you, dear reader, to give your parents or grandparents a call. Ask them what historical events they most remember. Talk with people about their memories, and you may be surprised at the relevance of their experiences. That’s how we can stop the erosion of history. History can be rewritten, but the communal memories we create and that we pass down retain important truths. Communal oral history allows us to democratize the writing of history, and preserve the feelings and zeitgeist of past events, rather than just the bare facts. These memories help us protect the past and, in doing so, they prevent us from repeating it.