Home > News > Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr. would say to Sen. Tom Cotton about American history
183 views 8 min 0 Comment

Here’s what Martin Luther King Jr. would say to Sen. Tom Cotton about American history

King called for a “multiracial patriotism.” Here’s what it looks like.

- July 29, 2020

Last week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced the Saving American History Act, which would “prohibit Federal funds from being made available to teach the 1619 Project curriculum in elementary schools and secondary schools.” The 1619 Project is a New York Times series that commemorates the year that enslaved Africans were first brought to the Virginia colony and treats slavery as fundamental to U.S. culture and development. Some historians have criticized the project, and Cotton decries it as “left-wing garbage” and “anti-American rot.”

Cotton’s legislation insists that the “self-evident truths” stated in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 “are the fundamental principles upon which America was founded.” In a recent interview that quickly became controversial, he stated that the Founding Fathers viewed slavery as a “necessary evil” and insisted that the United States be viewed “as an imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.”

Many disagree with Cotton’s view. Most prominently, civil rights leader and political philosopher Martin Luther King Jr. rejected this formulation of U.S. history. King called on Americans to “refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country even today is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.” In its place, King called for a multiracial patriotism that does not shy away from the oppressions within U.S. history but celebrates the resilience that allowed Americans to endure such hardships.

Here’s what you need to know about King’s concept of patriotism.

King called for a “multiracial” history

In his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” King recounts a program he and his wife, Coretta Scott King, attended at their children’s integrated school titled “Music That Has Made America Great.” They were dismayed that the “Negro spiritual tradition” was completely absent from the program. King recalls how he “wept within that night . . . for my children and all black children who have been denied a knowledge of their heritage,” and “for all white children, who, through daily miseducation, are taught that the Negro is an irrelevant entity in American society.”

To King, this was not an isolated incident but one of many examples of what he considered “cultural homicide.” King declared, “The tendency to ignore the Negro’s contribution to American life and strip him of his personhood is as old as the earliest history books and as contemporary as the morning’s newspaper.”

King’s response was not to “teach America’s children to hate America,” as Cotton fears from the 1619 Project’s curriculum. King pushed back against Black nationalists who viewed the United States as irredeemable and who sought an identity unattached to their American ancestry. King instead called for an American history that recognized the dignity and contributions of African Americans. He argued that this could not be done without also acknowledging the hardships these Americans endured. In King’s words: “Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America . . . a home that [we] helped to build through ‘blood, sweat and tears.’ ”

The challenge of writing Black history

King refused to whitewash Black history. He insisted that Blacks’ enslavement was central to U.S. history and critical to African American dignity. According to King, African Americans are “the heirs of a past of rope, fire, and murder” and “the offspring of noble men and women who were [kidnapped] from their native land and chained in ships like beasts.” King was clear: “I for one am not ashamed of this past.”

Michelle Obama expressed a similar sentiment when, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, she described coming from “generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping,” so that she and her family could “wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

King outlined a vision for an American history that does not minimize that history’s flaws and imperfections to celebrate American resilience. He argued that marginalizing the underside of U.S. history would enable what he called “the absurd dogma that one race is responsible for all the progress of history and alone can assure the progress of the future.”

Instead, King believed when the United States finds space for all these stories in its schools — unlike the ones his children attended — then it will be another step toward “a nation in which its multiracial people are partners in power.”

Was slavery a ‘necessary evil’? Here’s what John Stuart Mill would say.

When President Trump declared himself a nationalist in 2018, some worried about its racial overtones, while others argued that Americans can embrace nationalism while rejecting racism. King lays out a vision for a nationalism that can embrace the entire nation.

The TMC newsletter has moved! Sign up here to keep receiving our smart analysis.

Michael McKoy (@mkmckoy) is an assistant professor of politics and international relations and director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Read more: