Martin Luther King Jr. is arguably one of the most well known figures in American history, with students of all ages knowing his major impact he had on the Civil Rights Movement. He has a national holiday dedicated to him, he is praised by all major political parties and he appears in school curriculum as early as preschool. But how many students know the true extent of political views in depth?
When King is brought up in the classroom his well known views of being against segregation and violence are often the only things to be mentioned. Rarely, are King’s views of institutionalized racism discussed any further than at surface level. King was openly opposed to capitalism as he felt it contributed to oppression of those of color and he advocated for the ‘poor man’ , to end economic injustices within society. He also openly criticized America’s actions within the Vietnam war, actions that the government still has not apologized for today. As my U.S. history teacher humorously said, “King would even make Bernie Sanders look conservative!”
Similarly, Helen Keller is one of the most widely recognized figures in American history that people know little to nothing about. She was a very serious political figure who made major impacts in progressive politics and was inspired by the works of Karl Marx. Though, most Americans today only know her as the inspiring young girl who did not allow her disabilities to stop her from accomplishing her goals.
So, why are some aspects of major American political figures hidden from the general public? American history is whitewashed by removing many controversial views of its most well admired figures, in order to appeal to the widespread public. Though, this is detrimental to having a complex understanding of history as it’s important that students know knowledge that is beyond the surface level. History should not be concealed just because some more ‘radical’ views are not in line with mainstream society. Historical figures should be remembered for the entire complexity of their views despite them not being ‘mainstream’ in order to keep their life’s work and message continued.
Views of progressive leaders are not only being hidden, but also those of founders of America who had views that would be considered out of line with much of society today. Christopher Columbus, who has a national holiday dedicated to him like MLK, is often praised in history classes and by politicians alike because he is credited for ‘founding America’. Many people fail to realize that Columbus used violence against Native Americans and enslaved them, even allowing his crew to rape Native women with no repercussions. Thomas Jefferson, who is often admired as an ‘American Hero’ in general society, was a prominent slave owner who held deeply racist views.
It is imperative that people know all sides of the history behind important figures, as it is not just to overlook revolting actions in favor of their more ‘positive’ attributes. America was built on institutional racism and genocide, rather than just the narratives of liberty and freedom which are often fed to the public. This should be recognized in society rather than just a one-sided narrative. The injustices of those who many idolize, should be admitted and widely talked about just as much as their other more admired actions. After all, how can we account for the history of institutionalized racism when early perpetrators of the system are ignored?
History should not be looked at through a narrow lens, but rather with open eyes that allow all views and actions of historical figures to come to light. The public should not pick and choose which views meet their narrative to veil conversations that they do not wish to discuss. The purpose of history is to educate and learn from the complexities of the past, not to limit the scope into times before us. All views of historical figures, rather people personally agree or disagree with them, should be discussed in the same way as broadly respected views, to give figures an accurate representation. History must not continued to be whitewashed to fit a common American narrative, it is time to start accurately displaying a true understanding of this nation’s history.