The Canonization of Martin Luther King Jr.: Collective Memory, Civil Religion, and the Reconstruction of an American Hero Open Access

McDonald, Jermaine Malcolm (2015)

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Today we commonly accept that Martin Luther King Jr. is a national hero who embodies America as one nation under God with liberty and justice for all. This has not always been the case. According to a Gallup poll, in August 1966 King had a 33% favorable to 63% unfavorable rating. By contrast, his popularity rating in August 2011 was 94% favorable, a complete reversal. This dissertation explores the "canonization" of King in American society by tracing the process by which he has been elevated to the status of an unquestionable national hero. I use and refine theories of collective memory and civil religion to evaluate four critical cultural moments that have established and reaffirmed this elevation. Those critical moments are, first, the thirteen-year public debates that resulted in the establishment of a national holiday in King's honor; second, the Reagan-inspired, conservative reimagining of King as a colorblind priest; third, the creation of the National King Memorial in the pantheon of American heroes; and, fourth, the dedication ceremonies of that memorial which sought to remind the nation of King's commitment to economic justice and equality. Taken together, these critical cultural moments in the canonization of Dr. King reveal the discursive, contested nature of collective memory and civil religion in American society as individuals and groups struggle to name and shape shared social and moral values.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. 1

Collective Memory. 5

Civil Religion. 20

What's In This Text. 31

Chapter 2 - Thirteen Years in the Making: The Struggle for a National King Holiday. 35

Early Advocacy for a King Holiday. 36

Congressional Hearings in 1979. 41

House of Representatives Debate King Holiday Bill in 1979. 47

Public Activism for the King Holiday 1980-81. 52

House Subcommittee Hearing - February 23, 1982. 58

House of Representatives Pass the King Holiday Bill - August 2, 1983. 68

U.S. Senate Debates the King Holiday Bill - October 1983. 73

Summary. 83

Chapter 3 - The Colorblind Priest: Martin Luther King Jr. as a Conservative Cultural Icon. 86

President Reagan and the King Holiday Signing Ceremony. 92

The Reagan Misappropriation of King's Legacy. 98

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Colorblind Thesis. 107

Conservatives Reclaim King's Conservative Legacy. 111

Black Conservatives with Special Ties to Martin Luther King Jr. 126

Summary. 135

Chapter 4 - Set in Stone: The Making of the National Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. 140

Bringing the King Memorial to Fruition. 141

Elements of the King Memorial. 147

The Quotations on the Inscription Wall. 150

Arc of the Moral Universe. 151

Darkness Cannot Drive Out Darkness. 153

Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love. 156

Make a Career of Humanity. 158

Moral Example of the World. 159

A World Perspective. 161

Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere. 162

The Audacity to Believe. 164

It is Necessary to Love Peace and Sacrifice For It. 164

The Ultimate Measure of a Man. 166

Develop an Overriding Loyalty to Mankind. 167

Until Justice Runs Down Like Water. 169

A Society at Peace with Itself. 171

The Presence of Justice. 172

The Drum Major Paraphrase Controversy. 174

Summary. 177

Chapter 5 - Recovering the Prophet of Social Justice: Remembering King at the King Memorial Dedication Ceremony. 181

Historical Contextualization at the Dedication Ceremony. 184

Political Sentiments at the Dedication Ceremonies. 189

Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement Speak. 192

The President's Speech at the Dedication Ceremonies. 199

Collective Memory, Past and Present Distortions. 203

King Themes Uplifted and Omitted. 210

Summary. 211

Chapter 6 - Collective Memory, Civil Religion, and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. 213

Further Steps and Final Words. 226

Appendix A - Chronology of the National King Holiday. 230

Appendix B - Timeline of the King Memorial. 237

Appendix C - National Mall Area Map. 245

Appendix D - Inscription Wall Quotation Matrix. 246

References. 249

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