The Sources We Choose

MurchThis is the conclusion of an essay in The Guardian written by Donna Murch, professor of history at Rutgers University and author of the prize-winning book Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Murch reflects on a controversial essay recently published by the American historian David Garrow in a conservative British magazine about alleged sexual misconduct of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Garrow utilizes FBI records that will not be released to the public until 2027.

…it is worth thinking about what lessons can be drawn from the larger historical debate. The most obvious is the importance of responsibly using state sources, particularly those from law enforcement and intelligence agencies that may be actively involved in shaping the events they purport to represent. Given the vast expansion of policing, incarceration and surveillance in the US over the past half century, this concern extends well beyond the particulars of Garrow’s claims.

Another issue is how we understand and conceptualize history. In many respects, Garrow is of an earlier generation of historians who viewed history as a narrative march of “great men”. This interpretation of history is Janus-faced, however, because what can be constructed as great can just as easily be torn down. In recent years much of the historical profession has moved away from this kind of top-down, “Whiggish” history and toward a broader democratic vision of the American past that resurrects the contributions and voices of those too often lost to public memory.

Finally, we would be remiss not to reflect on the power of language. The detailed, almost pornographic descriptions of King in Garrow’s piece raise the specter of one of the most painful truths of African American history: the ways in which black political aspiration has been repeatedly defined as sexual threat. Be it the myth of the black rapist which rationalized white supremacist terror in the south after Reconstruction, or the FBI’s campaign to discredit the one of the country’s most transformative social movements by branding its leader a “sexual deviant”, this kind of prurience has enormous political power and consequences.

It is incumbent on us as historians not only to be self-conscious about the sources we choose, but also of the ways in which we render their content.

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