Notes from the Now

Posts Tagged ‘pauline_maier’

The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation

In History, literature, sociology on October 18, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Early this year, I read Pauline Maier’s document history of the Declaration of Independence. It looked at the Declaration as the end point of a process and made some fascinating comparisons to other document sources, the conventions of the day, the competing interests in the revolutionary movement, as well as the genius of the primary author (and of the drafting committee). The declaration itself was a fascinating hodge-podge of old & new, (and ‘er, “something borrowed & something blue”) that has shown itself to be much more than the sum of its parts.

Drew Hansen’s “The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Speech that Inspired a Nation” tries to do something very similar with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (audio). Hansen puts the speech in its context at the March on Washington, in the Civil Rights Movement of the day, and in Dr. King’s career up to that point. Hansen illuminates which aspects of the speech were part of Dr. King’s usual ministerial stump speech, which parts were crafted specifically for the context of the March on Washington, and what was simply inspiration that came to him at the moment.  In so doing, Hansen gives us tremendous insight into the man, the moment, and the times.

As interesting as the textual analysis itself was, Hansen succeeds most in putting the speech as a whole in its context during it’s time, in its immediate aftermath, and talking about the process (of decontextualization) that made it iconic.

For as much of a watershed moment as it’s “remembered” as being, and in spite of the powerful impact that it had on those who were listening at the times, the speech was essentially forgotten for most of the interval before Dr. King’s assassination.  King himself had begun to lose his luster as moving the struggle for civil rights outside of the South brought him new detractors, and challenging the Vietnam war further complicated his relationship with the powers that be.  Sadly, it is his martyrdom that allowed for his entire career to be looked at beyond the individual news-cycles of the day, and helped society at large to appreciate the affection that African-Americans had for Dr. King.   It is only further after the fact that the speech was recalled and elevated to be a stand-in for the entirety of the Civil Rights Era.

It’s tough to read something like this without comparing the story to the happenings in the present day, and there’s a consistency in the style (and substance) of the attacks — all usually prefaced with “I’m not a racist” — made on Dr. King and President Obama that’s startling and ultimately disheartening.   Dr. King suffered through a line of attack that should be familiar to the modern American — from being accused of trying to enslave the white man, to being a socialist, being more orator than “doer”, winning an under-deserved Nobel Prize, taking attacks on personal conduct/history — and ultimately came to understand that while he had seen the promised land, that he was unlikely to get there with us.

Fortunately, one piece of his legacy is still making the journey to that promised land with us.


American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier (2/2009)

In History on February 17, 2009 at 2:01 am

On my return trip from Washington DC in early February, I finished reading Pauline Maier’s historiography “American Scripture: The Making of the Declaration of Independence“.

In a political year that has validated the notion that words do have weight and can motivate and inspire people to change their world, it seemed fitting to take a look back at the words that started it all.

Maier takes a look at the development of the Declaration of Independence, with a particular disdain for the popular notion that Thomas Jefferson was the sole author of the document and that his work was profoundly original.  She sets the format and the concepts laid out in the declaration in the context of their environment (where a remarkable # of colonies and smaller municipalities had issued their own declarations) and in history where the declaration represents a point in the progression of Western political thought.

She does this without discounting Jefferson’s contributions or his sense of ownership of the document, but rather by showing his skill at building the declaration into something meaningful by extending existing constructs and ideas.

I (and I imagine that I’m not alone in this) simply wasn’t aware of either the committee structure that produced the Declaration of Independence draft or the substantial editing that was done by the entirety of the continental congress.  Maier thoughtfully adds the surviving drafts which lend credence to the notion that the edits by the committee of the whole significantly tightened up the declaration.

Maier’s history is solid and well worth reading.

As fascinating as the story of the production of the Declaration was, it is it’s banishment into the wilderness and later rediscovery that is even more fascinating.  The declaration was essentially seen as merely one of many founding / revolutionary documents (as a result of  the political climate) until the 1820s when it enjoyed a rediscovery of sorts in time for it’s 50th anniversary (and ironically Jefferson & Adams’ deaths).  Despite being given it’s due in the 1820s, it is not until Lincoln that the rhetorical flourishes in the Declaration are extended to (the beginnings of) their logical conclusions and that the modern conception of what the declaration of independence “stands for” emerges.  Our modern understanding of the Declaration of Independence very likely has as much to do with Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration’s text (and more subsequent reinterpretations) as with anything that Jefferson and the Continental Congress wrote or intended in the first place.

While Maier doesn’t take it all the way to this conclusion, there is certainly a valid critique embedded about the difficulty (and perhaps the value) of really knowing the  “original intent” or opting for a  “narrow construction” of historical documents based modern conceptions of deconceptualized historical texts.