The Challenges of Remembering: March on Washington & Birmingham Bombing

19 Sep

Historian Edward J. Blum highlights the tensions in remembering–commemoration–fifty years after the March on Washington and the Birmingham Bombing:

How do we balance King’s dream with McNair’s nightmare [father of one of the four girls killed in the bombing] in our supposedly post-racial and now-digital age? We still live in a country of freedom dreams and violent nightmares.

Indeed. Commemorations single out one or more things from the past–but the past is intertwined, not only with the present, but with itself. Commemorations can sometimes lose sight of the complexity and paradoxes for the sake of single-minded focus.

For myself, I’m uneasy with commemorations, in general. Perhaps it is an occupational quirk that goes with being a historian. I’m too aware of the complexities of the past. Yet it also has to do with my convictions about human nature and experience–which necessarily inform a study of the past.

Commemorations are understandable, even necessary, things. They are an important collective way of acknowledging the past, even beginning to come to terms with it and, at times, moving on. This, however, is when things are at their best. Often, commemorations are less than this “best.” Perhaps the bigger they are in scope, the more difficult it is to commemorate well, since with greater scope there is also a larger number of people to try to engage in the commemoration. It is much easier to commemorate the March on Washington than the Birmingham Bombing, which actually came so soon after the March. Our human limits and self-regard bend all things, including commemorations.

Read Blum’s reflections in full here.

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