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6 min read

Remembering well: journeying through America’s memorials

Ian Hamlin recalls the Civil Rights landmarks and memorials, as he continues his journey in the footsteps of his hero Martin Luther King.

Ian Hamlin has been the minister of a Baptist church since 1994. He previously worked in financial services.

An imposing stone statue of Martin Luther King standing with his arms crossed.
Martin Luther King Memorial at night, Washington DC.
Bernd Dittrich on Unsplash.

Pilgrimage, according to Pete Grieg’s definition at least, is simply ‘a journey with God, in search of God’. In other words, it’s not going from somewhere God isn’t, to where he is, but does recognise the real power of place, that the presence of God, experienced in a specific location, is significant, and worthy of seeking out.  

I’ve been reluctant to call this sabbatical trip of mine, to the sites of a variety of events significant in the American journey towards civil rights in the 1950s and 60s, a pilgrimage.  It sounds overly grand and to give too strong an emphasis to the geography, rather than either the history, or the biography, of Martin Luther King himself, the inspiration of the whole journey.   

Yet, as I’ve been travelling; by plane, train, car and foot, I’ve been powerfully moved, as I’ve stood in places that have carried the weight of real pain, and extreme significance. There is genuine emotion attached to being somewhere where something happened, barely a generation ago, it leaves a legacy hanging in the air which is somehow palpable.  That’s true regardless, but it’s often helped, although sometimes hindered, by some sort of maker.  Something to let you know that this is where it was.  Beyond the purely informational, memorialising has, or can, play a potent part in demanding that attention be continually paid to the past’s relevance to the here and now. 

Selma, Alabama

A historic marker at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

A history interpration sign stands by the highway approach to a arched bridge.

Those responsible for keeping this particular story alive, across the United States have, it seems to me, done an exceptional job in providing markers and memorials that both focus and amplify the meaning of the events they commemorate.  Allow me to take you with me, briefly, to some of the places where I have stood, that you might sense something of what I have felt.   

The USA, of course, has some experience of memorialising significant, yet relatively recent events. Coming from the UK, where I’m used to public monuments largely celebrating victory, glorifying generals and affirming a pretty static sense of solid certainty, it’s refreshing to witness commemorations that provoke as many questions as they provide answers, that promote reflection and challenge, as well as inform.   

Washington DC is, of course, a city of memorials.  Some of the most well known are, strictly speaking, outside of the remit of my trip, but it seems wasteful not to visit nonetheless.  

The monuments to Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington himself are famously huge, grand and imposing, yet, to my mind at least, the most moving Presidential memorials are those to Roosevelt and Mason, the forgotten founder. Relatively small, humble even, thoughtful, the small wheelchair bound figure of Roosevelt, almost lost within his own expansive legacy, generously populated with the images of others, especially the poor, they put aside prestige for the sake of the personal.   

When it comes to war, there’s a welcome note of ambiguity, whether you are scarred by the gash in the landscape that is the Vietnam memorial or haunted by the staring eyes of the Unnamed soldiers of the Korean war, catching you accusingly with their glance, there’s no place for mere glorification here.  

Of course, the one non president remembered on the National Mall, takes me to the heart of my journey.  Martin Luther King stands, tall and majestic, emerging, literally, out of the rock face behind him.  ‘Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.’ Powerful, in every respect, but I would have to go elsewhere to find his humanity. 

Like to his birth home, in Atanta, beside the very dining table where he was told by his father that the reason the inseparable friend of his pre-school years dropped him as soon as school began, was because of the colour of his skin, and that it would happen over and over again.  Or, later, at the kitchen table of the parsonage of his first church in Montgomery, where, having cleared up the wreckage from his bombed porch, he wondered, in the middle of the night, if the burden he was carrying was too great to carry, and yet, right there, experienced an encounter with God that fuelled his every succeeding day.   

Maybe to Boston, the most recent, abstract yet tender monument to the ‘Embrace’ between him and his wife, a marriage far from perfect, yet powerfully enabling.   

Or perhaps standing in his very footsteps, marked for posterity, at the Lincoln memorial for the March on Washington, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, perhaps the most searingly evocative place of all that I visited, or behind his own beloved pulpit from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery. In each and every place, recalling all the different stories, you get a feel for the man, his pain, and yet his faith. 

Then there were the larger museums, interpretive centres and institutes, designed to show the bigger picture still.  

Like the enormously impressive National African American Museum of Art and History (NAAMAH), part of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, where, I joined, in quick succession, a weeping line of black American visitors, filling past Emmett Till’s open casket, then, the same crowd, cheering the recorded promise of a Dream.  

The Civil Rights Museum of Birmingham, charged with overseeing the 16th Street Baptist Church, and the place, just outside the ladies’ rest room, where a bomb exploded. killing 4 young girls, just as a service was about to begin, as well as the pretty little park opposite, with its startling sculptures of snarling police dogs and water cannons.   

There was the Legacy Museum, from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in Montgomery, where you’re immediately overwhelmed by storm force waves crashing all around the walls and ceiling, enveloping you in the immersive experience of the transatlantic slave trade.  Before peering into a tiny cell and seeing a holographic figure come to life before you, a slave waiting their auction, telling you their story. Then, much more up to date, being ushered into a prison visiting room, picking up the telephone to hear the convict’s take on contemporary racial injustice.  

Birmingham, Alabama

Freedom Walk,  Kelly Ingram Park.

Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

a path passes between two monoliths from which sculpted aggressive dogs emerge.

Or, just down the road, in the Rosa Parks Museum, standing at a bus stop, watching a small, tired lady being hauled off to be arrested for falling to give up her seat, before you move on, another half mile or so, to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and feel the weight of the multitude of great steel blocks, 800 of them, each representing a county in America, bearing the names of the victims of summary lynching.  

Finally, there’s the gentle water flowing over Maya Lin’s follow up piece to her Vietnam memorial, the civil rights memorial, also in Montgomery.  All of these places, and others; bitter with anger, drenched in tears, seared with hope.  Remembered, celebrated, with all their ongoing awkwardness as benchmarks in history and faith.   

In an age when the role of statues and memorials is much debated, when history, it’s said, should know its place, and yet be allowed to stand and speak its truth … these places, images, powerful exhibits and presentations, demand that the whole, painful truth shout out its reality, often in the name of the victims and the vanquished.  In doing so, they bear good witness to the events that they’re designed to speak of. They inform, but, much more than that, they move and they challenge, they create new and ongoing stories so that history is not only recalled but re-enabled in a needy present, and offered up in hope. 

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10 min read

‘Let your yeah be yeah’: when style supplants substance

The frustrating language of politics.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

Rishi Sunak
Campaign slogans.
Newzeepk, X.

You know what it’s like. A catchy piece of music is going round and round in your head. You can’t stop it. You don’t know where it came from. And, if you did originally like it, you find yourself quickly going off it.  

Some call it ‘sticky music’, while others have labelled the phenomenon as ‘stuck song syndrome’. I prefer the more evocative ‘earworm’ as it ably expresses the experience of something both invasive and undesirable. 

On this occasion the tune was accompanied by its refrain, ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. Round and round and round it went. It’s not a song I know well, and I couldn’t even remember who sang it.  

Thankfully a quick google identified it as a top 10 single from 1971 by the Jamaican reggae trio, The Pioneers. Unfortunately, discovering that did not make it go away. 

It was not rocket science to understand what was going on inside my head. It was the first week after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had called the election and the campaigning had begun in earnest.  

Now it’s not that my instant reaction was to do a ‘Brenda from Bristol’. Brenda, you will remember, became an internet sensation in 2017 for her memorable outburst when Teresa May called a snap election. She exclaimed, ‘You must be joking, not another one!’ No, I’m to be found more at the aficionado end of the political spectrum. 

Still, I have been finding myself increasingly exasperated over recent years. I don’t think my irritation is just about getting older and becoming more grumpy. But I do find myself frustrated by what politicians do with language and the words they choose to use. I’m annoyed by the strategies they adopt as they justify themselves and the rhetorical devices they surreptitiously employ to bolster an argument. 

Inside I find a deep longing for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Is it too much to ask? Of course, there’s the root in my psyche, ‘let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’. 

It’s not that this is some kind of naïve desire for politics to become what it never can be - some kind of genteel, educated, middle-class debating society.  

The very nature of democracy has passionate argument at its very heart. We don’t wrangle over what we agree on and hold in common. Democracy obliges our leaders to be in a mindset of perpetual persuasion towards us. 

No, for me, the nub of the problem is when emotive words are chosen to make a point that the substance of an argument can’t. Or, when rhetorical sleight of hand is deployed on an unsuspecting audience, much like the misdirection of a magician in creating the illusion of magic. 

Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

This is nothing new. It has been a part of our public life in the West since the classical era of Aristotle, Plato and Cicero. It was the English rhetorician Ralph Lever who, in the sixteenth century, attempted to translate the key concepts of Aristotelian logic into English in his The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft. That is, ‘witcraft’ – the art, skill or craft of the mind, NOT ‘witchcraft’: though some might see that as an apt descriptor of the dark arts that classical rhetoric can enable. 

Aristotle, however, was clear in his understanding that the function of rhetorical skills was not to persuade in and of themselves, but rather to make available the means of persuasion. The substance of an argument was always to be more important than the manner in which it was communicated. 

It is hardly a revelation that the world of contemporary comms has been birthed in a brave new world of technology. As the American media theorist and cultural critic Neil Postman pointed out, the advent of TV introduced entertainment as the defining principle of communication and what it takes to hold our attention. 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was Postman’s 1985 era-defining commentary of how things have changed. Gone are the 2-hour long political ‘stump’ speeches and hour-long church sermons. Style supplants content and soundbites replace substance that has depth and an evidential basis. 

The speed of the internet, the ubiquity of social media and the omniscience of the algorithms have only served to distil and intensify the phenomena that Postman was concerned about. That recent history has witnessed the success that has accompanied the media experience and understanding of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, only serves to underline the prescience of Postman’s observations.  

The ability to cut through the surrounding cacophony, engage an audience and then hold their attention long enough to communicate something of value is challenging to the nth degree. This has merely served to ramp up the intensity, exaggeration and immediacy of political speech. To impact us it must evoke an emotional response. In this anxiety and fear are the most effective drivers. 

Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was quite clear in his assessment that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. We might now consider a day, or even an hour, to be the operative chronological measure. The news cycle can turn very quickly indeed. 

Yet the underlying dynamics of communication remain. Rhetoric remains supreme. Political machines have become the masters of ‘spin’ and of the art of gaming the opportunities, language and positioning presented by contemporary media. 

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’.

All this is in a context in which it is estimated that those in middle age have consumed an average of 30-40,000 hours of TV and some 250,000 advertisements. Britain is a media savvy society. Yet for all of this sophistication in media consumption, I remain fearful of how aware my fellow citizens are of the techniques that inform contemporary political messaging. 

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States, Newt Gingrich, provides a helpful case study. Back in 1994 he produced a notorious memo to Republican candidates for Congress entitled ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control’.  

Following extensive testing in focus groups and scrutiny by PR specialists he highlighted around 200 words for Republicans to memorise and use. There were positive words to associate with their own programme and negative ones to use against their opponents.  

The positive words he advocated included: 

opportunity… control… truth… moral… courage… reform… prosperity… children… family… we/us/our… liberty… principle(d)… success… empower(ment)… peace… rights… choice/choose… fair…  

By contrast, when addressing their opponents: 

decay… failure … collapse(ing)… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… sick… pathetic… lie… they/them… betray… consequences… hypocrisy… threaten… waste… corruption… incompetent… taxes… disgrace… cynicism… machine… 

Careful choice of words can then be layered with other strategies to construct a highly sophisticated political message.  

At a most basic level come the ever popular ‘guilt by association’ and its twin sibling ‘virtue by connexion’. Are migrants portrayed as ‘sponging off the benefits system’ or ‘filling recruitment shortfalls in the NHS, social care and industry’? Is British culture under threat of being overwhelmed or enriched by cultural diversity? 

Integral to this use of language are the various methods of ‘virtue signalling’ to a particular audience and the infamous ‘dog-whistle’ subjects and phrases to call them to heel. Tropes and labelling also play their part. On labelling, the nineteenth century statesman John Morley powerfully denigrated the practice by suggesting that it saved ‘talkative people the trouble of thinking’.   

As voters we should always be highly sensitive to what’s being communicated when a speaker talks about ‘us and them’, ‘ours and theirs’, ‘we and they’. By implication who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? We should be aware too when more general arguments are made that leave us, as listeners, to fill in the blanks. This hidden rhetorical manoeuvre gets us ‘onside’ by leading us to intuitively believe that the speaker agrees with us. Along the way they haven’t defined what ‘responsible government’, or ‘critical priorities’ or ‘British values’ actually are. Instead, they have left for us to supply our own definition, ensuring our agreement and support. 

To these can be added the ever more common practice of ‘gaslighting’, where information or events are manipulated to get people to doubt their own judgment, perception and sense of reality. And then there’s my favourite that the Urban Dictionary defines as a ‘Schrodinger’s douchebag’. Especially popular among populist politicians, this is where an outrageous statement is made and the speaker waits for the audience to respond. Only retrospectively do they declare whether they meant what they said or were only ‘just joking’. 

It's perhaps no surprise that Rhetorical Political Analysis is actually a thing. Academics study it and political journalists use it to sniff out any hint of obfuscation. Depressingly, in the media, this frequently descends into an unholy game of ‘bait and trap’. Politicians, for their part, then become much more guarded as they seek to side-step a ‘gotcha’ move, whether merited or not. 

… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications.

So where does that leave the aspiration of ‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’? It may be surprising to some that The Pioneers’ song about a troubled love affair is directly quoting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But Jesus’ focus is not about romance here. 

What he is talking about is truthfulness, authenticity and integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. For Jesus, truth and truthfulness was at the very centre of his own identity. Indeed, in Christian theology Jesus is the ‘word made flesh’, the ‘exact representation’ of who God is and what he is like. Jesus then advocates what he embodies: an alignment and integration of who we are, with what we say and what we do. 

This has to be the foundation for authenticity and integrity. These are the very principles that are so highly prized in the political arena, and yet so quickly abandoned in the maelstrom of the conflicting demands of public life.  

Jesus advocated living a truthful life, not least because of its liberating outcomes, ‘… the truth will set you free’, he said. Free from the ducking and diving around our half-truths and fabrications. Free from the fear of being found out or the implications of the ever-deepening holes to be dug. Free to be ourselves and have all the bits of our lives fit together as one. 

This has to be the principle to live by, the standard to benchmark, the way of life to aspire to. It’s no coincidence that integrity and honesty are two of the seven Nolan principles that inform the UK government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life

But the fact is we know the world to be a complicated place. We are not always the people we long to be. In the church’s liturgy the prayer of confession calls out our challenges. We miss the mark ‘through negligence, through weakness, [and] through our own deliberate fault.’ 

The reality is that, while we aspire to be the best that we can be, we also need to be alive to alternative realities. Our political processes can throw up flawed actors, bad actors and nefarious actors. They present very differently, yet we must always read through what is being communicated to access what is being said. 

Life is complicated. There are many different ways to legitimately tackle the issues that we face as a country. Always there are trade-offs. Frequently the future turns out to be different to what has been predicted. Ultimately there are too many variables. 

The 2024 General Election has proven to be refreshingly different. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer are as natural or charismatic in front of a camera as some of their predecessors.  

It rained on the Prime Minister when he announced the election without an umbrella and the day after took him to the Belfast shipyard where the Titanic was built. Such gaffes are reassuringly human. Labour’s tragically cack-handed approach to Diane Abbott and whether she could stand for election as MP for Hackney North & Stoke Newington where she faithfully served for 37 years is in a similar vein. 

Yet, through it all it is worth noting Laura Kuenssberg’s comments for the BBC. 

Both leaders inspire unusual loyalty among their teams. They are often praised by those who work with them as being warmer than they appear on camera: staffers describe them as decent family men, who take their jobs incredibly seriously and work incredibly hard. 

I find this remarkably encouraging. In the meantime, that song keeps going round in my head. 

‘Let your yeah be yeah, and your no be no, now’.  

Please make it stop.