Private rituals provide comfort through routine. Public rituals deploy the same logic on a mass scale by creating a sense of community through a shared experience.
Today's celebration of the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington is a ritual that is designed to cement America's memory of itself as an exceptional nation above all others. Consider the trajectory and narrative arc: the United States held millions of people in bondage, fought a Civil War over the issue of chattel slavery, was led to a third revolution by Dr. King, and then elected a black man as President.
The story sells itself.
This same public ritual involves the dual creation and reinforcement of a mythology which creates a version of Dr. King that is robbed of all of his radicalism, and where he is made into an easily digestible figure for a public that yearns for consensus politics.
As I alluded to here, the anti-war, anti-poverty, radical, provocative, challenging, and explicitly pro-black Dr. King who loved black and brown people and would die for them in the fight against White Supremacy, is not an acceptable public figure for post racial, post civil rights America.
The United States is a "corporateocracy" where its citizens have been taught that democracy is synonymous with capitalism. The United States has circulated a myth of origin wherein she imagines herself as a nation of immigrants--as opposed to a nation of white settlers who showed up, displaced the people already living here, and then created a racially tiered "democracy".
And with Jim and Jane Crow being formally vanquished, the American (white) public could be self-congratulatory, pronounce white racism dead, and the work of the Civil Rights Movement done...and damn any black, brown, or white folks who continue to call out the existence of both day-to-day and institutional white supremacy, for they are now the "real racists" by daring to engage in such truth-telling enterprises.
The celebration of the truncated and abridged "I have a Dream Dr. King" is a result of a need by elites and many in the public to integrate those competing impulses and political projects.
The Dr. King who is feted and worshiped in the Age of Obama is a wax museum come to life. He is a post racial version of Santa Claus for all of those good boys and girls who want to imagine that white supremacy is a thing of the past. Consequently, because Dr. King is now a type of cultural and political Santa Claus, he can be re-purposed by the White Right and claimed as their cheerleader with little consequence for their willful lies in the service of white supremacist fantasies.
The particularly lazy and intellectually vacuous type of public memory that has been created around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in post civil rights America encourages such fictions and delusions.
Who is to be blamed?
However, the real Dr. King would be putting much coal in the stockings of the American people for their failure to continue his work. In the year 2013, the American people have not created an economic democracy, are in many ways surrendering to white supremacy, have not fixed broken public schools, unions and labor are weak and dying, and American militarism is shrugged at with little complaint.
The public ritual wants, and even perhaps needs, a great man or great woman, a singular figure on which to focus its attention. Among proper students of the Civil Rights Movement and American history--as opposed to the one created by the dream merchants of multicultural market/corporate democracy neoliberal America--it is understood the Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was but one player among many other freedom fighters in the centuries-long Black Freedom Struggle.
Counterfactuals and thought experiments are very useful devices here.
What would happen, if on this 50th anniversary of The March on Washington, men and women such as Brother Malcolm X, Robert Williams, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Toussaint Louverture, The Deacons for Defense, The Black Panthers, Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, David Walker, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Amy Jacques Garvey, John Brown, and the many other black (and some white) Americans who fought for the rights, human dignity, and liberty of African-Americans, by any means necessary, as well as in quotidian ways (and usually without acknowledgement) were also elevated to American sainthood?
Is American public memory capable of including such voices in an honest way?
And must the Civil Rights Movement's public narrative necessarily be about black "surrender" to white violence in order to fit into a politically correct version of American history that is approved by the white racial frame?