Neglecting Black Heritage: Playing with Fire

Martin Luther King's Birth Home in Atlanta, Georgia, Mikefairbanks, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_King%27s_Boyhood_Home.jpg (Accessed 4 Apr. 2024)

 

On December 8, 2023, a Black female veteran tried to set fire to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home in Atlanta, Georgia. Both Laneisha Henderson’s mental health issues and her status as a former United States Marine have been reported on at length.1Her political affiliations with former President Donald Trump and Black supremacist (and separatist) Malachi Z. York were decried by the African American community via social media.2 Such an event is reminiscent of traumatic times in American history, including threats on M.L.K.’s life.3Burning homes was also used as a strategy during Reconstruction-era racial terrorism.4However, the public outrage was short-lived, despite the long-lasting implications of such an event. Someone almost destroyed something that is priceless to (African) American history. How come? What is being done – and not done – to protect Black heritage in the United States?

The event itself was the object of brief widespread media scrutiny, both domestically and abroad, primarily in the UK5 and in India6 No major francophone publication chose to cover the story, which coincides with the potency of a narrative of “colorblindness”7 in France and other French-speaking countries.8 Nevertheless, I believe that this is a watershed event, in that it reveals how contentious Black history and the preservation of Black heritage currently are in the United States, in many different ways.

Should Laneisha Henderson’s alleged arson attempt be interpreted as a political act against a nationally-revered figure or merely as an isolated incident committed by a person suffering from a mental health episode? Her previously-mentioned cryptic posts about politics suggest the former. Has Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. grown into a divisive figure among the African American community? Many academics have inquired into the “whitewashing” of his legacy by – mostly White – liberal politicians. Following his passing, he was made into the quintessential hero of the “acceptable” side of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, as opposed to other figures deemed as radical and dangerous. The recurrent opposition made between him and Malcolm X stands as an example of this narrative.

Photography of Street signs [on Lenox Avenue, New York City, New York], by Kaysha, posted on December 15, 2017, https://unsplash.com/fr/photos/photographie-de-la-signalisation-routiere-85dW5FJmcy
(Accessed 11 Mar. 2024).

“Malcolm X, half-length portrait, facing right”, World Telegram & Sun photo , 1964, by Ed Ford, No copyright restriction known, staff photographer reproduction rights transferred to Library of Congress through Instrument of Gift, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c15058
(Accessed 11 Mar. 2024).

Their effective friendship has been overlooked, if not entirely erased from the collective American memory. Instead, Dr. King stands for peace and order, whereas Malcolm X represents violence and separatism. On the one hand, King is associated with the peaceful “March on Washington” (August 28, 1963) during which he delivered his groundbreaking “I Have a Dream” speech, and on the other, X is tied to the excesses of The Nation of Islam, an organization to which he belonged for 12 years before a falling out that resulted in his assassination.9

“Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mathew Ahmann in a crowd of demonstrators during the March on Washington [August 28, 1963]”, posted by Unseen Histories on August 17, 2020. https://unsplash.com/fr/photos/martin-luther-king-jr-et-mathew-ahmann-dans-une-foule-de-manifestants-lors-de-la-marche-sur-washington-bTF3gkd2L28
(Accessed 11 Mar. 2024).

King’s political agenda has been misconstrued, his more radical ideas overlooked.10 Could this (mis)appropriation of Rev. M.L.K.’s legacy by liberal politicians for their own political agenda11 – from conservative journalist Ben Shapiro12  to former Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi13 – have fostered resentment towards him within the African American community (who feels like his “dream” has yet to come true)?

I do believe that herein lies an essential issue that Americans are currently faced with, especially as their country reels from the 2020 George Floyd protests, some of which escalated into riots.14 What are the correct and respectable ways to ask for equal rights? However, something else puzzles me. If M.L.K. is in fact this quintessential American hero, how come his birth home is still so vulnerable? How could specialists such as Dr. Clayborne Carson  have not heard of the attempted arson?15  Why is it that another former home of M.L.K.’s has recently burned down in Camden, New Jersey?16 Who is to blame for the lack of protection that his estate, and Black heritage as a whole, are suffering from?

His family and estate have frequently come under fire, especially given the many disagreements and legal battles that have occurred among M.L.K. ‘s heirs.17 However, I believe that most of the criticism leveled against them is unwarranted, if not racially biased.18 In any case, the house was sold by the King Center19 to the National Park Foundation (NPF) in 2018.20 As “the official non-profit partner of the National Park Service (NPS)”, the NPF embodies private interest – as opposed to public, be it federal or state –  in heritage preservation.21  The NPS boasts the efforts currently made to secure the M.L.K. heritage site, comprising several buildings in downtown Atlanta.22 The birth home is said to be under renovation until at least November 2025, which appears to have been planned prior to the attempted arson. The nature of those renovations remains unclear.23

I believe that the problem lies deeper than the NPF’s inner faults and failures. The issue at the heart of this event is that Black history is not valued as the integral part of American history that it is, but rather as its shameful counterpart.24 In turn, Black heritage is neglected and left in a state of disarray, both from embarrassment and complacency within public opinion.

On the one hand, the situation seems quite bleak. Very few Black heritage sites are being registered as such, both at the federal and state levels. There is also a contradiction between an apparent commitment to diversity/diversifying American heritage preservation and the ethnicity of the people in leadership positions. According to the National Trust for Historical Preservation, 93% of its “preservation leaders” were White in 2011. Racial minorities are therefore underrepresented, as they amount to 13% of the US population. Moreover, out of 86,000 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, only 8% (around 6,800) represent “women and racially and ethnically diverse places” and only 3% of the country’s 2,500 National Landmarks represent those groups.25 Furthermore, the only American site listed on UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger” is the Everglades National Park in Florida.26 A stark paradox remains between Confederate and Black heritage in the State of Georgia, the site of M.L.K.’s birth home. Whereas the Carving on the side of Stone Mountain, “the largest Confederate monument in the world”27, continues to be a thriving tourist attraction despite its deeply racist history28, Rev. King Jr’s birth home is still under threat.29

Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederate states), Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (both generals in the Confederate army) carved into the side of Stone Mountain, Georgia, posted by Mark Griffin (user Weatherman) in July 2006, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stone_Mountain_Carving_100_0871.jpg
(Accessed 11 Mar. 2024).

“Mountain, carving, and train as visitors prepare to watch the nightly laser light show” in 2015, posted by Pilotguy251, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, 9 July 2015, via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stone_Mountain,_the_carving,_and_the_Train.jpeg
(Accessed 11 Mar. 2024).

On the other hand, there are many individuals and organizations committed to preserving Black heritage and history, though they appear in varying degrees of conventionality. Brent Leggs and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund have been acting against the disappearance of such sites for decades.30Creative methods are being employed to go about preserving Black history. From converting heritage sites into commercial buildings to digital history31, there are many non-governmental bodies acting to save African American history from oblivion.

What does such an event signify a few months before the 2024 presidential election? In an opinion piece for MSNBC, columnist Frank Figliuzzi sees it as “a lesson for us [Americans] when four people as diverse as two tourists from Utah and two ex-cops from New York instinctively work together to do the right thing and prevent the loss of a national treasure.”32 In a way, it is in fact the perfect American story, where “good folks” overcome their differences for their country’s benefit.  In his article, Figliuzzi portrays them as heroes and role models for the entire country in this election year. In doing so, he contributes to the framing of the issue, be it heritage preservation or political action, as the responsibility of individuals, instead of the State’s.  “Draped in the virtues of social neutrality, the trend towards individualizing problems nevertheless benefits certain interests more than others. It contributes to the preservation of the established order and, in so doing, reinforces those who already dominate it.”33Admittedly, Figliuzzi’s article is written for another purpose altogether, as he uses the event (and the reaction that ensued) as a metaphor for the current political climate. He describes a second Trump presidency as a “threat” for American democracy and hopes that people will rally against him.34 The Atlantic has recently dedicated an entire edition to the dangers facing the nation should Donald Trump be elected for a second time. Two of the included articles are particularly of the essence here, one about the threat it could pose to civil rights35,and another about his promise to alter Americans’ collective understanding of their history36. Indeed, how could a man who seems to have a quite hazy memory of Frederick Douglass’s existence37 serve the interests of marginalized people trying to protect their history and heritage from oblivion and destruction? How can one pledge to “Make America Great Again” without overlooking less than favorable chapters in the country’s history, including that of its Black citizens?

  1. To cite only a few:  https://veteranlife.com/military-news/the-birth-home-of-martin-luther-king-jr-arsonist-was-charged/ “she is also suffering from mental health episodes”; https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/rapahel-warnock-attempted-arson-mlk-birth-home-response (“a very troubled young woman”); https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2023/12/08/martin-luther-king-mlk-home-arson-henderson/ “concerned for her well-being”. (Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].  []
  2. See her facebook page for a cryptic tarot card picturing Donald Trump sitting on top of the world, and her using a #FreeMalachiZYork hashtag: https://www.facebook.com/Laneisha.Shantrice/ (Accessed 4 Mar. 2024). []
  3. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/kings-home-bombed (Accessed 25 Mar. 2024). White segregationists bombed his home in Montgomery, Alabama, on January 30, 1956. []
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html (Accessed 25 Mar. 2024). “The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 killed hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,250 homes and erased years of Black success.” []
  5. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-67662868; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/dec/08/woman-arrested-alleged-arson-attempt-martin-luther-king-home; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/ap-atlanta-national-park-service-police-coretta-scott-king-b2460867.html; https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12841207/martin-luther-king-home-arson-attack.html(Accessed 14 Feb. 2024). []
  6. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/woman-charged-with-attempted-arson-of-martin-luther-king-jr-birthplace-in-atlanta/articleshow/105844891.cms. (Accessed 14 Feb. 2024). []
  7. A person or a society can claim to be “color-blind” when they purport to “not [be] influenced by differences of race”, and that they “trea[t] all people the same people regardless of race” (Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/color-blind (Accessed Mar. 11 2024). Proponents of a “color-blind” strategy to reducing racial inequalities in the United States most often oppose affirmative action, which is “the use of policies, legislation, programs, and procedures to improve the educational or employment opportunities of members of certain demographic groups […]as a remedy to the effects of long-standing discrimination against such groups” (Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/affirmative%20action) (Accessed 11 Mar. 2024). []
  8. Donadio, Rachel. “France is Officially Color-Blind. Reality Isn’t”. The Atlantic, July 6, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/07/france-race-racism-grande-ecoles/613924/ (Accessed 11 Mar. 2024). []
  9. Lawrence MAMIYA et Universalis. MALCOLM X MALCOLM LITTLE dit (1925-1965) [online]. In Encyclopædia Universalis [s.d.]. Available on : https://www-universalis-edu-com.accesdistant.bu.univ-paris8.fr/encyclopedie/malcolm-x/ (Accessed 17 Mar. 2024). []
  10. “Before his death in 1968, King was well on the way to becoming a pariah. In 1966, twice as many Americans had an unfavourable opinion of him as a favourable one. Life magazine branded his anti-Vietnam war speech at the Riverside church, delivered exactly a year before his assassination, as “demagogic slander”, and “a script for Radio Hanoi”. Just a week before he was killed, he attended a demonstration in Memphis in support of striking garbage workers. The protest turned violent and police responded with batons and teargas, shooting a 16-year-old boy dead.” in Younge, Gary, “Martin Luther King: How a Rebel Leader Was Lost to History”, The Guardian, April 4, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/04/martin-luther-king-how-a-rebel-leader-was-lost-to-history (Accessed 24 Mar. 2023). []
  11. Rounds, Christopher D. “‘Dead Men Make Such Convenient Heroes’: The Use and Misuse of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy as Political Propaganda.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 51, no. 4, 2020, pp. 315–31. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26985190. (Accessed 10 Mar. 2024). []
  12. “I’m blessed that I shared my birthday with Dr. King’s day right [January 15, and] I’ve always had a special fondness for that fact. But what we really remember him for is his message which was not Malcolm X’s message, so to understand Martin Luther King’s message we have to do it in contrast to Malcolm X. Prior to his conversion to actual Islam and his call for peace before he was assassinated by the the folks over at the Nation of Islam to which Democrats still pay homage,[…] heads of the Democratic Party are meeting with their leaders like Louis Farrakhan, which should show you something about the state of today’s modern politics. Malcolm X’s message was black militancy; his message was black separatism at least in his early days. […] Martin Luther King was fully within the American tradition. America has certain rights, inalienable rights and these extend to black people and to prevent black people from exercising these rights is an act of terrorism and active evil an act of tyranny and this was his basic message and that message is why we honor Dr. King. If he had been a racial separatist like Malcolm X we would not be honoring Dr. King we would be talking about whether his legacy has helped contribute to the constant racial tensions in the country. The reason that Martin Luther King is considered such a great figure is because of the racial reconciliation.”(Timestamps: 3:41-5:22) https://youtu.be/stfcrfNMIk0?si=JpC8sndPGGkoY6B8&t=221 (Accessed 17 Mar. 2024). []
  13. “On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, our nation comes together on what would have been Dr. King’s 95th birthday to celebrate and reflect on the remarkable life and legacy of this great American hero. Dr. King said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman … because it often results in physical death.” We must honor his call by continuing to expand affordable health care for all. Americans are forever inspired by Dr. King’s words and unwavering courage as we strive to strengthen our democracy and honor his vision of equality and peace.” (January 15, 2024). https://twitter.com/SpeakerPelosi/status/1746923108072923344 (Accessed 17 Mar. 2024). []
  14. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a White police officer (Derek Chauvin) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25,2020, sparked outrage both across the United States and abroad. Chauvin was sentenced to over 22 years in prison in 2021, mainly for two counts of murder. See Arango, Tim, et al., “Derek Chauvin is Found Guilty of Murdering George Floyd”, New York Times, April 20, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/20/us/chauvin-guilty-murder-george-floyd.html (Accessed 24 Mar. 2024). []
  15. I interviewed him via email on March 13th, 2024. “I’ve heard of the Camden event but not about the attempted arson at the birth home.” Dr. Clayborne Carson is a specialist of M.L.K. ‘s legacy and has worked in close proximity with the King family for the longer part of his career. He is currently retired. []
  16. Hughes, Ryan, CBS News, March 12, 2023. https://www.cbsnews.com/philadelphia/news/martin-luther-king-jr-house-camden-new-jersey-fire-walnut-street/ (Accessed 24 Mar. 2024). []
  17.  “Cashing In on the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 36, 2002, pp. 52–52. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3133934. (Accessed 17 Mar. 2024) See the recent lawsuit about King Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize Medal, with Martin Luther King III and Dexter King in favor of its sale, against their sister Bernice King. https://www.rawstory.com/2016/08/martin-luther-king-jr-s-heirs-settle-nobel-medal-dispute-judge/ (Accessed 17 Mar. 2024) []
  18. Dr. C. Carson defended the family in The Washington Post: “Quite frankly, I don’t see how it’s any different from the Disney Corporation Martin Luther King Jr. saying, ‘We own Mickey Mouse, and if you want Mickey on Affirmative Action Mouse on your pages you have to pay a fee.”, quoted in “Cashing In on the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 36, 2002, pp. 52–52. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3133934. (Accessed 10 Mar. 2024). []
  19. I contacted the King Center via their contact form on March 3,2024. I did not receive an answer. https://thekingcenter.org/contact/ (Accessed 10 Feb. 2024). []
  20. Zaveri, Mihir. “National Park Service Now Owns the Home Where Martin Luther King Jr. Was Born”. December 15, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/15/us/mlk-home-national-park-service.html (Accessed 18 Mar. 2024). “The National Park Foundation, the charity arm of the park service, bought the home from the King Center for $1.9 million. Money for the purchase came from private gifts by anonymous donors, and the home was turned over to the National Park Service on Nov. 27, Will Shafroth, the foundation president, said on Friday. News of the sale surfaced this week.” []
  21.  “As the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation generates private support and builds strategic partnerships to protect and enhance America’s national parks for present and future generations.”https://www.nationalparks.org/our-mission-history (Accessed 18 Mar. 2024). []
  22. https://www.nationalparks.org/news-and-updates/updates/preserving-the-legacy-of-dr-martin-luther-king-jr (Accessed 18 Mar. 2024). []
  23. I contacted the NPF via their contact form on March 3, 2024. I did not receive an answer. https://www.nationalparks.org/contact (Accessed 10 Mar. 2024). []
  24.  Linn-Tynen, Erin. “Reclaiming the Past as a Matter of Social Justice: African American Heritage, Representation and Identity in the United States.” Critical Perspectives on Cultural Memory and Heritage: Construction, Transformation and Destruction, edited by Veysel Apaydin, UCL Press, 2020, p.257. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv13xpsfp.21. (Accessed 10 Mar. 2024). []
  25.  Linn, Erin. “Reclaiming the Past as a Matter of Social Justice: African American Heritage, Representation and Identity in the United States.” Critical Perspectives on Cultural Memory and Heritage: Construction, Transformation and Destruction, edited by Veysel Apaydin, UCL Press, 2020, pp. 255–68. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv13xpsfp.21. (Accessed 10 Mar. 2024). []
  26.  https://whc.unesco.org/en/danger/ (Accessed 24 Mar. 2024). []
  27. https://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/monument/ (Accessed 10 Mar. 2024). []
  28. https://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/blog/the-connection-between-the-united-daughters-of-the-confederacy-and-the-kkk/ (Accessed 10 Mar. 2024). “Days before the film [Birth of a Nation] premiered in Atlanta [in 1915], [William Joseph] Simmons led a group of 15 men in robes and hoods up the side of Stone Mountain, set fire to a cross, and symbolically resurrected the KKK.  […]Despite the deepening ties between the UDC and the KKK, Helen Plane’s [president of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) in 1915 and founder and first president of the Stone Mountain Confederate Monument Association] efforts to add the Ku Klux Klan to Gutzon Borglum’s carving on Stone Mountain were not realized. […][in her words:] “Since seeing this wonderful and beautiful picture of Reconstruction in the South,” Plane wrote, “I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan which saved us from Negro domination and carpet-bag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain. Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance.” []
  29. Around a million people visit it every year. https://www.tpl.org/blog/civil-rights-icons-childhood-home-brings-his-past-and-presence-alive (Accessed 25 Mar. 2024).  []
  30. Cep, Casey. “The Fight to Preserve African American History”. February 3,  2020. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/03/the-fight-to-preserve-african-american-history (Accessed 18 Mar. 2024). See, for example, the house of the first Black female millionaire which was turned into a coworking space for Black business owners. []
  31.  See the Equal Justice Initiative’s website on the history of lynching in the United States. https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/.The organization provides interactive maps that locate every documented lynching site. https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/explore (Accessed 24 Mar. 2024). []
  32. Figliuzzi, Frank. “These strangers protecting MLK’s birthplace have a lesson for all of us”. MSNBC. December 11, 2023. https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/msnbc-opinion/martin-luther-king-jr-birth-place-arson-attempt-rcna129119 (Accessed 17 Mar. 2024). Here, he is referring to the civilians who stopped Laneisha Henderson from (allegedly) setting fire to the house.  []
  33. Comby, Jean-Baptiste. « L’individualisation des problèmes collectifs : une dépolitisation politiquement située », Savoir/Agir, vol. 28, no. 2, 2014, pp. 45-50. https://www.cairn.info/revue-savoir-agir-2014-2-page-45.html (Accessed 18 Mar. 2024). This is an article about climate action/inaction but a similar point could be made about heritage preservation. P.45: “”The depoliticization of public debate is often reflected in the success of visions that individualize problems, to the detriment of those that socialize them. While the latter emphasize the collective causes of society’s ills, the former attribute them primarily to individual behavior. The promotion of these “asocial” interpretations of the social world leads to a narrowing of the debate on ideas. The spectrum of possibilities is no longer presented in the political terms of a “model of society”, but is confined to moral registers” (translation by Deepl). In the original French: “La dépolitisation du débat public se manifeste bien souvent par le succès des visions qui individualisent les problèmes, au détriment de celles les socialisant. Tandis que les secondes insistent sur les causes collectives des maux de la société, les premières les imputent prioritairement aux comportements individuels. La valorisation de ces interprétations « asociales » du monde social entraîne un rétrécissement du débat d’idées. Le spectre des possibles ne se présente en effet plus dans les termes politiques du « modèle de société » mais est confiné à des registres moraux.[…] Drapée des vertus de la neutralité sociale, la tendance à l’individualisation des problèmes profite pourtant à certains intérêts plus qu’à d’autres. Elle contribue en effet à la préservation de l’ordre établi et, ce faisant, conforte ceux qui le dominent déjà.” (p.45)What is at stake here is the preservation of a mental ecosystem that acknowledges (or does not) the importance of the preservation of Black heritage and Black history.  []
  34. Figliuzzi, op cit. “Like the threat posed to the King home by the woman on the porch, the risk to our democracy is playing out right in front of us. Last week, when asked whether he might turn a campaign victory into a dictatorship, Donald Trump conceded he’d be a dictator, but only on Day One.” []
  35. Newark, Van R. II, “Civil Rights Undone. How Trump Could Unwind Generations of Progress”, The Atlantic, December 7, 2023. (Accessed 17 Mar 2024). []
  36. Smith, Clint. “ Donald Trump vs. American History. He has promised to impose his harmful, erroneous claims on school curricula in a second term.”, The Atlantic, December 6, 2023. (Accessed 17 Mar. 2024). []
  37. Graham, David A. “Donald Trump’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”. The Atlantic. Feb 2, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/02/frederick-douglass-trump/515292/ (Accessed 11 Mar. 2024). []

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
axellesalvador (8 avril 2024). Neglecting Black Heritage: Playing with Fire. (Hi)Stories. Consulté le 19 juillet 2024 à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/11pjb


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