Hajar Yazdiha's an Assistant Professor of Sociology, a faculty affiliate of the Equity Research Institute, and a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar (2023-2025). Dr. Yazdiha received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and is a former Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and Turpanjian Postdoctoral Fellow of the Chair in Civil Society and Social Change. Dr. Yazdiha's research examines the mechanisms underlying the politics of inclusion and exclusion as they shape ethno-racial identities, intergroup relations, and political culture. In addition to award-winning articles, she is author of the new book, The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement and she recently talked with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration forThe Struggle for the People’s King?
The immediate catalyst for my book was the Abigail Fisher case against affirmative action, which was playing out in the news when I was in graduate school. I was shocked how Dr. King’s words of social and racial justice were being misappropriated to claim affirmative action was anti-white racism. The research I embarked on ended up opening my eyes to just how long these strategies had been used and, more concerningly, how they were intentional in their distortion of the past for the purpose of rolling back multicultural democracy. I realized just how true Orwell’s words were that “who controls the past controls the future.”
How familiar were you with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement prior to beginning your research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Struggle for the People’s King?
What’s funny is that despite my fascination with the Civil Rights Movement as a kid, reading Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, watching the films The Long Walk Home and The Ernest Green Story over and over again, I had been educated in only the tip of the iceberg. Of course, as I show in my book, the tip of the iceberg has been the point of the larger political project. The memory of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement—its complexity and radicalism, its deep unpopularity and unfinished work—has been intentionally written out of the mainstream record.
By the time I was writing my book, I certainly knew more about King’s radicalism and the Civil Rights Movement’s complexity, specifically the unacknowledged contributions of so many Black women. I also acknowledged that I was coming to the work not as a historian but as a sociologist who would be studying how a memory gets co-opted and remade for political purposes. I was more focused on the political process and the cultural outcomes than the history. But in the six years that I was researching and writing the book, I learned so much more history than I could have imagined, and it only drove home the conviction that learning the truth about our past can be transformative.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
In poring over thousands of newspaper articles and organizational documents, I came across so many nuggets that stopped me in my tracks. It could seem like there was no ill intent in the way Dr. King’s memory has been whitewashed, and maybe this is just what happens to any history over time. But when you look at the documents leading up to the making of the King holiday, you actually see on paper that whitewashing Dr. King’s memory was Reagan’s strategy. Over time, other politicians and right-wing groups used the same strategy, and it’s clear as day in their planning documents.
The other great finding, however, was just how powerfully Black communities have resisted revisionist histories at every step along the way. The media wasn’t covering their efforts, but with every false invocation of King, there were Black activists and historians, civil rights leaders, Dr. King’s own children, calling them out and correcting the record, even without the media megaphone.
In the book’s preface, you describe how your experiences as a child of immigrants instilled an interest in the Civil Rights Movement. Can you tell us a bit more about those experiences and how they drew you to Dr. King’s work?
It’s true, a deeper motivation for the book and my fascination with the Civil Rights Movement was the way the Black radical tradition helped me make sense of my experiences as a child. I am the daughter of Iranian political refugees, and I grew up in a then-mostly-white community in Northern Virginia. Despite watching the same shows, eating the same fast food, and listening to the same music as my classmates, I always felt like an outsider, and at times, teachers and classmates would remind me of as much.
But my parents were activists to their core, and their idealism infused every aspect of my upbringing. Dr. King’s similar recognition of our common humanity and dignity across all boundaries and borders really resonated with me. When my mom introduced me to some of the great Black thinkers in high school—Frantz Fanon, bell hooks, Audre Lorde—my perspective began to transform. Seeing the social world from the outside could be a gift. We could be emancipated from the world we lived in. We could chart a different future. This is why I dedicated my book to the visionaries.
How do you see Dr. King’s legacy being co-opted for political purposes? Are there key examples you can share?
Since we recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I have been thinking a lot about how Dr. King’s so-called "I Have a Dream" speech has become one of the defining distortions of his legacy. So often, we hear King’s words about a dream of a world where his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It is the singular line that shows up time and again in the forty years of evidence I analyze in my book, and it is decontextualized from not only the rest of the speech but also from King’s larger politics.
Dr. King’s so-called dream of colorblindness is not about pretending color doesn’t matter, which is how politicians have disingenuously used it to roll back King’s legacy, from voting rights to affirmative action to racial education. What King is describing is a world where we have collectively worked to acknowledge and eradicate anti-Blackness from the deep systems and soul of our society. This is the unfinished work that continues today.
Why should we be concerned about Dr. King’s legacy being co-opted?
When I began this research, I was really interested in understanding how King’s legacy had been co-opted. What I did not expect to find was the glaring evidence of its dangerous consequences. The repeated and intentional misuse of King’s memory for right-wing politics has transformed the mainstream memory of King and the Civil Rights Movement as we know it. It has created a revisionist history that controls mainstream public understandings of the racial past and activism’s role in social change. In this distorted memory, the Civil Rights Movement is used as the end chapter of racism and the beginning of a colorblind era. In this distorted memory, the Civil Rights Movement achieved its goals by being peaceful and loving and not creating any trouble.
The danger of revisionist history is that it makes it impossible to understand our present-day social crises—for example, why racial inequality persists, why movements like Black Lives Matter continue the Black freedom struggle, why power is concentrated in the hands of a few, why some parents worry that racial education will make white children feel bad. Revisionist history has not only been used to roll back multicultural democracy, it has been used to divide us. As I show in the book, we are not just polarized in our political beliefs. We are polarized in our social reality. We have to wake up to the consequences of distorting the past and just how much it matters for our ability to work together toward a collective future.
What should most people know, but don’t, about the legacies of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement?
One of the greatest gifts of Civil Rights history is how anyone can find themselves within the complexities of the movement. The mainstream memory of the Civil Rights movement leaves us thinking everyone was on the same page back then, unified in background and politics, and it makes it impossible to imagine how we would replicate a movement of this scale and success. Yet there was so much internal diversity in the Civil Rights Movement – both in terms of demographics and in political ideologies. There were plenty of internal conflicts, and organizers were constantly negotiating all their disagreements and differences. I believe if we knew more about how people of different backgrounds and political stances came together, allowed space for disagreement, and still remained committed to a larger cause, we might find some inspiration and a greater sense of persistence in our own struggles. Solidarity politics is always messy, but it is worth it.
I also wish we would read and listen to more of King’s speeches to more fully understand his own political growth and vision. For example, I always look to the speech that Dr. King gave exactly one year before his assassination, entitled "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence." I see this speech as such clear evidence of how politics has defanged King’s memory and legacy. In this speech, we see how Dr. King has evolved in his thinking and his politics over the years, the increasing frustration and impatience he is feeling with the political establishment, and its refusal to enact meaningful change that will help all people. It is a speech that helps us understand how King was committed to eradicating the triple evils of American society—not just racism but also capitalism and imperialism. It is a speech where we see King’s commitment to global struggles, his vision of shared humanity, and his understanding that we are linked in fate across borders.
How can people resist the revisionist histories you warn about in The Struggle for the People’s King?
The first step to resisting revisionist history is to notice it, to recognize it, and to take it seriously. These distorted histories are so deeply embedded in our culture that it is easy to take them for granted and treat them as if they are harmless nuisances. Simply acknowledging and calling out the misuses of history and holding their sources accountable—whether media, politicians, or even friends and family—has immeasurable value. We must see this resistance as an ongoing practice, a lifetime of learning and listening, dismantling and rebuilding.
Beyond individual misuses of history, we require a collective movement to challenge the authoritarian politics that are working to criminalize and erase history. Florida may seem like it is far away, but these politics are already creeping across the country and will have long-lasting consequences for future generations. We have already seen local school battles around the constructed threat of critical race theory in our own state. Resistance takes on multiple arenas, from filling school boards and city councils to advocating with organizations and policymakers to supporting public libraries.
For everyday people without significant time and resources for advocacy, the day-to-day conversations we have with our children and our families, our neighbors, and colleagues are far more powerful than we often give them credit for. The building blocks of social progress have always been in the relationships we build with one another. If the legacies of the Civil Rights Movement have taught us anything, it is that the power of the people comes from the power of the community.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
After a busy summer, I have a backlogged stack of library books on my nightstand! I just finished Nicole Chung’s A Living Remedy which completely wrecked me. It was beautiful. I just started Chain Gang All Stars, after which I’m looking at Paper Names then His Name is George Floyd.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
There are too many to name, but some of my consistent favorites are:
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
I loved everything Judy Blume! I read Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself to shreds. I also loved the predictable coziness of The Babysitter’s Club series and wanted desperately to be the quirky fashionista Claudia Kishi.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Admittedly I was ashamed by how much I pored over the Sweet Valley High series since I wasn’t even allowed to have Barbies (a principled feminist stance by my parents!).
Is there a book you've faked reading?
I was an English major in undergrad, and with sincere apologies to my Victorian literature professor, I don’t think I got through any of the books we were assigned that semester. I’m looking at you, Daniel Deronda.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Is there a book that changed your life?
Orientalism by Edward Said is a book that made me feel seen for the first time. All of a sudden my individual experiences were collective. The connections became clear; it all made sense. Is there anything better than that feeling?
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
For nonfiction, I think Racism Without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is one of the clearest books for explaining why colorblindness is a harmful ideology and for helping us identify how we may ourselves have unwittingly subscribed to some of its ideas.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I clearly struggle with superlatives (ha!), but one book I wish I could read again for the first time is Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I know this book spurs strong reactions, but for me, it was so strange and surprising and resonated with something I have felt before but not been able to name.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I am a TV nut, and I’ve been really impressed and moved by some of the recent book-to-television translations. Station Eleven has stayed with me. I was so into Kindred and beyond disappointed it was canceled. Not based on a book, but I was also blown away by Reservation Dogs and The Last of Us.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
In some dream world where time and space are bendy, I would love to wake up and snuggle my kids at home, kiss my husband goodbye, and then miraculously find myself alone in a quiet cottage overlooking the ocean, drinking good (must be good) coffee and listening to the waves. I would spend the morning in quiet peace, wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket, smelling the ocean, reading, writing, thinking, and eating some kind of delicious flaky pastries. Then my sister and best friends would get transported in for a day of wine tasting in beautiful vineyards (I recently celebrated my birthday in the Russian River Valley, and it was so charming). A delicious farm-to-table-esque lunch would be involved. Since this is my dream scenario, the wine would not redden my teeth nor make me sleepy. Fully energized for the next transport, I would then find myself on a beautiful tropical beach with my husband, where we would spend the late afternoon swimming in warm water, napping on soft sand, and drinking out of coconuts. Then we would transport back home where my kids would not have any remaining gripes or needs, we would eat pizza and watch a silly movie together, then climb into crisp, clean sheets, snuggle, and drift off to sleep.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?
Q: Would you like to be a regular contributor to The New Yorker?
(This is what I call ‘manifesting’)
What are you working on now?
In addition to a couple of ongoing projects—one on Voter ID laws, one on police violence, one on Gen Z activism—I have been dreaming up my next book project. It builds on the dedication of my book to the visionaries, and instead of the visionaries of the past, I am looking at the visionaries of our future. More to come soon!