For some, the fact that we have Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a confirmation that the war has been won, that racism has been eliminated. That we have overcome. But we have to look at the Civil Rights Movement like antibiotics: Just because some of the symptoms of racism are clearing up you don’t stop taking the medicine or the malady returns even stronger than before. Recent events make clear that the disease of racism is still infecting our culture and that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day needs to be a rallying cry to continue the fighting the disease rather than just a pat on the back for what’s been accomplished.
History has a tendency to commemorate the very thing it wishes to obfuscate. When you convince people that they’ve won, they lose some of their fire over injustice, their passion to challenge the status quo. In Alan Bennett’s brilliant play, The History Boys, one of the teachers explains to his students why a World War I monument to the dead soldiers isn’t really honoring them, but rather keeping people from demanding answers as to how Britain unnecessarily contributed to the cause of the war and is therefore responsible for their deaths. By appealing to our emotional sense of loss, the government’s monument distracts the people from holding the hidden villains responsible. The teacher says, “And all the mourning has veiled the truth. It’s not lest we forget, but lest we remember. That’s what this [war memorial] is about…. Because there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”