History, Collective Memory, and the Appropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Reagan's Rhetorical Legacy

By Bostdorff, Denise M.; Goldzwig, Steven R. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2005 | Go to article overview

History, Collective Memory, and the Appropriation of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Reagan's Rhetorical Legacy


Bostdorff, Denise M., Goldzwig, Steven R., Presidential Studies Quarterly


All human beings draw upon their understanding of the past in order to make decisions about the future, and political leaders are no different. Not only do political leaders use their conceptions of history to guide their policy making, but they also employ the past in their messages in order to convince citizens to support particular policies and/or to create a value climate in which citizens are likely to do so (Gronbeck 1998, 54-59; Neustadt and May 1986). Evoking public memory, then, is an inherently rhetorical activity, for speakers must choose which stories from the past they desire to tell, how they wish to recount particular people and events, and what words from history they want to share. Sometimes, what politicians offer us in these rhetorical constructions are revisionist histories and messages.

According to William K. Muir, Jr., "More than any other modern president, Ronald Reagan sought to exploit the moral possibilities of the rhetorical presidency. He used his 'bully pulpit' to try to convince the public that his values and ideas about personal responsibility and the good society were right. In other words, he sought to change the mores of Americans" (emphasis in original; Muir 2003, 194). We believe the way in which he did so was by evoking collective memory, particularly in regard to civil rights. Indeed, the president was quite intent on changing national values and mores in this arena. In Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years, Haynes Johnson concluded that Reagan was one of the few presidents "who truly altered the condition of the country" through his policies and "affected the way people thought about it" (Johnson 1991, 455). We argue that the president attempted to change Americans' perspectives on civil rights by invoking the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., in strategic ways. More specifically, the president employed King's words to argue that equality of opportunity in the United States had already been accomplished, and furthermore, that individuals--rather than the government--now had to take responsibility for any additional progress that was needed. President Reagan maintained that the dismantling of federal civil rights laws and social programs was actually consistent with King's words, and he narrowed the purview of civil rights to exclude government intervention in the economy, education, and other arenas. Through his rhetoric, Reagan prepared the public mind and heart for new public visions and new public policies. Reagan's interpretations and reinvigorated rhetoric signified an evolving set of values and precepts that would be the centerpiece of civil rights rhetoric for decades to come.

Attention to the president's appropriation of King gives us an opportunity to reflect on rhetorical strategies used to develop and extend history and collective memory. In particular, our analysis of Reagan's rhetoric on civil rights not only sheds light on his presidential persuasion, but also on the kinds of civil rights policies that he ultimately adopted. Past research has examined the civil rights rhetoric of other presidents (e.g., Carcasson and Rice 1999; Goldzwig 2003; Goldzwig and Dionisopoulos 1989, 1994, 1995, 55-89; Medhurst 1994; Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2000; Pauley 1999, 2001; Windt 1990, 78-84; Zarefsky 1980, 1983, 1986), but has not studied Ronald Reagan's words on this subject. Indeed, the only exception is Vanessa Beasley's You, the People: American National Identity in Presidential Rhetoric, which briefly analyzes Reagan's discourse about race as part of her larger project examining how presidents talk about immigration, race, and gender in their inaugural addresses and State of the Union speeches. According to Beasley, Reagan's rhetoric differed from that of his predecessors because he employed inclusive words that denied distinctions among people. She concluded, "Lamentably, however, in this view there was also no one who needed or warranted assistance, a concept that clearly distinguishes Reagan's rhetoric from his predecessors'" (Beasley 2004, 117). …

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