Charita Goshay: Selective memory distorts King's message

Charita Goshay

One of the good -- and bad -- things about Americans is our short attention spans.

Unlike some parts of the world where people fight, carrying on more-than-600-year-old grudges, we’re a forgiving na¬tion. We’ve always befriended our former enemies, almost always to our mutual benefit.

A short memory does not always do us a service, however. Last week, we honored the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and deservedly so. But we have been shortchanged. So much of King’s work has been boiled down to catch phrases -- “YouTubed,” if you will.

King often is described as “Christlike.” He was, but not in the manner we prefer. Like Jesus, much of what he had to say was difficult to hear. That’s because the purpose of a prophet is not to hold our hands, but to hold us accountable.

We frequently cite the conclusion, “I Have a Dream,” but forget that it was preceded by these words: “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of pov¬erty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”

Scorching words

On Vietnam: “They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.

“... What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones? ... We have cooperated in thecrushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force: The unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and child¬ren and killed their men. What liberators?”

Selective memory

We forget such scorching words triggered fear and outrage and caused many supporters to fall away. We forget that at the end of his life, some young blacks had begun to reject his philosophy of nonviolence.

We forget the words of Jesus: A prophet is never accepted in his own country.

At times, truth is provocative, even to the point of anger. To diminish it by way of selective memory does a disservice, not only to the bearer, but also to those for whom the message is meant.

Reach Repository writer Charita M. Goshay at (330) 580-8313 or e-mail