“Behold This Cliché: The Truth Shall Set You Free.””Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in a letter from his Birmingham, Alabama jail cell in 1963. Back then, the jury was still out on the state of blacks in America and there were many who read King’s words as little more than the self-serving plea of a prisoner. But triumph has a way of correcting faulty adjectives. By the end of the decade, “self-serving” had been edited to “noble” and “patriotic.”
Such redefinitions usually follow great revelations. A story that was unknown or incompletely known is finally told in full or recast in an unprecedented way. It is as if a mirror is being held up in which the nation can see for the first time the incivility of its ways—the unsightliness of its segregated buses, for instance. These transformations are hailed as historic, but they are more. The human cost and drama that go into their making are the commentary, the fundamental narratives, which breathe life into the dead pages of history. Without knowing them, one could still score well on tests, but never grasp the dynamics of the living or shape sound policy. And they are often born out of Manichaean struggles, waged on streets or in courtrooms, which is how they are exposed and brought to the forefront of public consciousness.
Nieman Reports, Fall 2011