The past is never dead, but revisionism should be

The past is never dead, but revisionism should be

The past is never dead, but revisionism should be

By Tyra Bosnic

America is seeing another historic era of political dissent.

The day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., became one of the largest protests in recent history with about half a million people in attendance. The Black Lives Matter movement has become a national force in the push for racial equality. Climate change and the oppression of Native Americans reached national attention with protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. 

These movements will go down in history, and it is vital that their legacies remain intact. People today have done a disservice to past revolutionaries and we cannot make the same mistakes by mischaracterizing current movements. 

After the fatal October 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, activists started the hashtag #ReclaimMLK in January 2016 to combat the rewriting of one of the most notable human rights figures. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a famous victim of historical revisionism within current dialogue. Since his assassination nearly 50 years ago, the Black Lives Matter movement’s critics have used his impact to distort his legacy, despite the movement aiming to finish what he spearheaded.

In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote, “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice” was a larger roadblock to racial equality than actual Ku Klux Klan members because of moderates’ pushback against demonstrations.  

The “white moderate” still exists today, and the road to justice hasn’t been paved over. When violence has erupted during largely peaceful protests in the country, many critics often say, “Why couldn’t they have protested like Dr. King?” The question is posed as if the American public’s attacks against civil rights leaders then aren’t nearly identical to the criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement now.

In 1966, 63 percent of the public had a negative view of King, according to an archived Gallup poll. ln August 2017 survey by the Harvard-Harris Poll found that, out of 2,051 participants, 57 percent have a negative view of the Black Lives Matter movement. For decades, those who stand for equality have been vilified for their actions, even by those who claim to stand against racism.

Revisionism doesn’t only come from distortion. Complete omission of radical acts by historical figures contributes to a corrupted view of fights for human rights as well.

The 1962 biographical film “The Miracle Worker” portrays Anne Sullivan tutoring young, blind, deaf and mute Helen Keller. The film ends after Sullivan is successful in helping Keller communicate, but there is much more to Keller that didn’t make it to the big screen.

Along with co-founding the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920, Keller spent her life working for radical causes. She saw a relationship between living in poverty and developing a disability, making her a staunch leader in fighting economic inequality. She also advocated for birth control and was an ardent supporter of the labor rights movement and other leftist causes that put her on FBI surveillance. 

More than one in five adults with disabilities lives in poverty, according to a January 2017 report by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics. Keller’s activism must be highlighted as Medicaid is under constant threat thanks to the current administration, and the voices of disabled people continue to be silenced.

It is a necessity for us to look back on the leaders who came before us in an accurate light in the fight for equality, or else we will find ourselves falling into a similar cycle of denying progress through such erasure.