How We Can Achieve a More Inclusive History

This long weekend, as we reflect on his life and legacy, we also renew our dedication to a cause Dr. King held dear: ensuring the story we tell ourselves as a nation is an inclusive one, which does justice to all our communities and captures the full spectrum of the American past.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

By Stephanie Meeks and Marita Rivero

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. well understood, history is the story we use to explain ourselves and define our community, so we had better get it right. This long weekend, as we reflect on his life and legacy, we also renew our dedication to a cause Dr. King held dear: ensuring the story we tell ourselves as a nation is an inclusive one, which does justice to all our communities and captures the full spectrum of the American past.

This effort to fashion a more inclusive narrative for America lies at the heart of Dr. King's famous 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech. As in Lincoln's Gettysburg address a century earlier, Dr. King roots the opening chapter of our story -- not in the Constitution, which had deemed African-Americans three-fifths of a person -- but in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident -- that all men are created equal."

He then wields the poetic power of place -- from the red hills of Georgia to the mighty mountains of New York -- to cement the foundation of a more expansive American story. By invoking a creed we cherish and places we love, King hoped to "transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

A half-century since those words, one need only glance at the front pages to see that the struggles and discords of Dr. King's time persist. Nor have we fully attained that more comprehensive understanding of our past that he strove for, particularly when it comes to preserving places that represent stories from our diverse history.

In short, important stories from our past are too often being overlooked. For decades, many voices were not represented within the traditional boundaries of historic preservation. Antebellum plantations elided over the stories of enslaved people who worked the land there. Western forts had no information about the Native American societies and cultures that were displaced. Mansions were saved, the tenements often forgotten.

Our community is working hard to remedy this, both by adding more diverse places to the National Register of Historic Places and encouraging deeper dives into the full history of those already listed. But many communities still feel their stories have not been told, and the places they care about have not received the attention they deserve. They have been working on their own to save these places, and restore neighborhoods and Main Streets across America.

At the National Trust, we want to support these efforts, and build a more inclusive movement -- one that engages people from all backgrounds and works with them to save and revitalize the places that matter to every American. Protecting these diverse places helps us all to recognize that we are part of a greater whole, and brings us closer to the "beloved community" Dr. King envisioned.

Our research shows that 65 million Americans, from all walks of life, strongly support the goal of preserving the past, and a quarter of them are actively engaged in their communities to make it happen. They want preservation to be about more than just maintaining historic homes and interpreting the mansions of Founding Fathers. They want to see the history and struggles that matter to them reflected in our national story. They want to see the places they cherish recognized, protected and actively thriving.

It was this same yearning that helped make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day our newest federal holiday. Even as legislation languished in Congress, three million people signed a petition urging an official MLK Day in 1971. By 1982, spurred by Stevie Wonder's popular "Happy Birthday," a song dedicated to the cause, and the endorsement of over one hundred organizations, six million Americans signed the largest petition of support to Congress in our nation's history.

"This is not a black holiday," Coretta Scott King emphasized a year later, when President Reagan signed MLK Day into law. "It is a people's holiday." And it is.

Dr. King himself wrote passionately about the importance of such efforts in his final 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here -- Chaos or Community? Deploring "America's penchant for ignoring the Negro, making him invisible and making his contributions insignificant," King relates the stories of overlooked African-Americans like Dr. Charles Drew, who first separated and stored blood plasma. He tells of how he wept for the black children "who have been denied a knowledge of their heritage" and the white children "who, through daily miseducation, are taught that the Negro is an irrelevant entity in American society." What all should realize, King argued, is that "the wealth of cultural and technological progress in America is a result of the commonwealth of inpouring contributions."

To capture the full American experience, we need to do a better job of recognizing these many contributions. We also have to keep exploring how to best commemorate the more complex and difficult chapters of our story. "A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness," Dr. King wrote, "but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present." The heartbreaking distrust in communities like Ferguson has many fathers. But it does not help that we, as a nation, have not been sufficiently appreciative of the stories and struggles of diverse communities in America, and it shows in the historic places we have chosen to save.

That is why, to take just one example, we agree with the descendants of former slaves who believe that the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia -- once the center of the antebellum slave trade -- should be treated as a site of conscience, where the public can reflect on past struggles for freedom, seek harmony and reconciliation and join together to address contemporary legacies of injustice. Because until we are better attuned to the history of all of our citizens, and until we weave a national narrative of ourselves that includes all Americans, this misunderstanding and distrust will continue.

Preserving the full American past, in all its breadth and glory, is an ambitious and necessary task. To do it right, and to honor the charge Dr. King bequeathed to us, requires a commitment to recognizing all the facets of our diverse history. Ultimately, from the Great Bend of the Gila River to the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts to the shotgun houses of Dr. King's own Atlanta neighborhood, preservation is about protecting places that matter to each of us. And every American should have the chance to see themselves, and the places they hold dear, included in our collective story.

Stephanie Meeks is the President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Marita Rivero is the Chair of the National Trust's Board.

Go To Homepage

Before You Go