With a couple of exceptions, all of the major commemorations of Martin Luther King Jr in Utah are affiliated with colleges and universities. This seems normal--after all, schools have become the main site of commemoration in American culture--President's Day, Constitution Day, and many smaller acts of public memory happen in schools or they happen not at all.
But it is strange as well, both for commemoration in general, and for MLK Jr Day in particular. Schools have been sites of commemoration forever, but until relatively recently, they were secondary sites. Fraternal organizations, churches, civic clubs, political parties and other groups in civil society handled local commemorations (or local versions of national commemorations), while the mainstream media presented a particular view of national issues.
This was the case even as recently as the 1960s, when King came to prominence. Major newspapers reported on the "I Have a Dream" speech and other major events in his life with remarkable uniformity. And after his death, the big commemorations, especially those calling for the creation of MLK Day, were driven by unions, churches, and civil rights organizations. Universities and schools were of minor significance.
It is easy to understand why universities were late to King commemoration. By the end of King's life, university students tended to see him as a sell-out. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had split with King's SCLC. University students who had been part of the civil rights movement in the mid-60s had either turned toward Black Power or towards anti-war efforts.
At the same time, public schools found King's legacy to be too controversial to attend to.
The change came about during the Reagan administration, which dragged its feet while the media and civil rights establishment turned their efforts towards the creation of Martin Luther King Day. Representatives from the Reagan administration did not want to appear to be too closely aligned with civil rights activists, so as King Day became a reality, they commemorated the day by visiting schools and reading to kids. A diminished view of King, one comfortable for public school consumption, emerged from the 80s and the effort to create a version of King that could win support for MLK Day.
As civil rights moved to the back burner as a political issue (and campus activism declined) universities began to embrace MLK Day as a way of commemorating their former fervor (hence the marches that characterize many MLK Day celebrations today). Once service-learning became a major force on college campuses, those marches were often accompanied by days of service, and the contemporary landscape of commemorations was set--recalling the I Have a Dream speech in public schools, service and marches in higher ed.
It is worth asking whether this is a good outcome. I am saddened that schools have become the guardians of King's legacy, if only because it implies that King has become part of our history, rather than a living part of our culture (and that our civil society has shrunken). I am a troubled that the main commemorations of his life are community service and marches. For while those were part of the repertoire of the civil rights movement, they were only a minor part. It was the speeches, the moral fervor, the religious vision, the legal acumen, and the relentless organizing that brought about the changes of the civil rights movement. Where are the institutions to commemorate those things?
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