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


  • AUTHORS’ NOTE: An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association in Chicago in November 2004. We wish to express our appreciation for valuable research assistance provided by Jodi Brusewitz, Marquette University.

Denise M. Bostdorff is associate professor of communication at The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Her research publications have focused on presidential foreign-policy rhetoric, particularly crisis rhetoric, and have also examined how presidents have dealt with issues of diversity such as gays in the military and Haitian refugees.

Steven R. Goldzwig is professor of communication studies at Marquette University. His research interests include politics, ethics, and the contemporary presidency. He is currently working on a book-length study of Harry S. Truman's presidential campaign rhetoric during the 1948 whistle-stop train tour.


This article argues that President Ronald Reagan appropriated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words and memory to suggest equal opportunity in the United States had been largely achieved. Individuals—rather than the government—now had to take responsibility for any additional progress. By arguing that the dismantling of federal civil rights laws and social programs was actually consistent with Dr. King's words, President Reagan advanced his own agenda for civil rights in direct violation of Dr. King's intentions, while narrowing the purview of civil rights to eliminate government intervention in employment, education, and other arenas.