History Lessons

Reading history and reflecting on mismatch

Above: Picture of Neville Chamberlain, September 30, 1938, holding aloft the infamous Munich Agreement. Photo courtesy of history.com

A reading of “Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘History Lessons,’” by Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker, January 17, 2022

The problem with hierarchical thinking is the phenomenon, “they eat their own:” that in the process of resolving, distilling discordant voices — think Churchill’s in 1938 — the potential for solution is circumscribed.

A system to study and control social threats and preservation creates an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside.’ The ‘inside’ to preserve and sustain the work of survival and the ‘outside’ to contain/compartmentalize threats to survival.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 wanted peace — so did an overwhelming majority of the British public. What the UK couldn’t tolerate however, was a future of uncertainty. In 1938 in the UK there was a “mismatch,” between not wanting war and not wanting a nation destroyed and dominated by terror.

America had not experienced the consequences of “appeasement” in the way the British did in 1938. No recent history of outside aggressors, no outside threats. But America had experienced ‘appeasement’ in another way: America had experienced ‘division’ both historically and economically.

Indeed, America’s ‘division’ at the current moment feels like the ‘mismatch’ that was felt in the UK in 1938 between not wanting war and not living with terror.

‘History’ can serve to re-clarify mistaken notions of division and America’s collective experience:

March 25, 1965, at the conclusion of the brutally consequential march from Selma to Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech titled “Our God Is Marching On!” He spoke to a crowd of twenty-five thousand people on the grounds of the Alabama state capitol, in view of the office window of the segregationist governor George Wallace. The address is not among King’s best-known, but it is among the most revelatory. King argued that, in the decade since the bus boycotts in that city, a new movement had emerged and an older order was starting to fall away. Referring to the historian C. Vann Woodward’s book “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” King said that racial segregation had begun not simply as an expression of white supremacy but as a “political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.”

-Jelani Cobb

Think another ‘discordant voice,’ that of Dr. King in 1965.

During their careers both King and Churchill wrote history, spoke history, acted with the “burden of the forebears.”

Both efforts to ‘march with history’ are being tempered —“white-washed” is the apt term here — today, as we read and watch:

To an underappreciated extent, he(King) related the nation’s contemporary concerns to a genealogy of past ones. Such historical continuities stand to be lost in the mainstream American understanding. Legislation recently passed in eight states — a list that may expand — seeks to restrict what students can be taught about our past, segregating laudatory and thereby permissible subjects in American history from a Jim Crow section in which the nation’s deepest shortcomings are hidden from view.

-Jelani Cobb, January 17

Streaming on Netflix January 24 is “Munich, the Edge of War,” a revisionist rewrite of the events swirling around Chamberlain’s efforts to “carve out” peace with Hitler’s Germany. (1) With a foursome story rippling through the vintage shots, the “bigger picture” of discordance gets lost.

In 1965 Dr. King revealed the terrain of discordance:

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

What his words evoke is a nation… not a ruling elite and a dispossessed class… not a confederacy of white-washing and appeasement.

January 18–21

1-Manohla Dargis, “Peace for Our Time? Well, Maybe Not,” Film Review, Munich: the Edge of War, streaming on Netflix, NYTimes, January 21

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