I was at home talking with my teenage daughter the other day (those of you who have teenagers know how it can be getting them to talk aobut anything) and we began talking about the First Amendment. This led us to the Thirteenth Amendment which in turn led us to a discussion about Abraham Lincoln. I explained to her that Lincoln didn't really free anyone though he's called The Great Emancipator in many history books. How could this be?
The reason behind this phenomenon and others like it has to do with history being more subjective than objective; actually history is more often created than it is simply allowed to happen. This is a critical issue when given the task of judging historical figures. For further emphasis on this point let's consider the events and times in history that were a century past Lincoln. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) the story of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on the Bus in Montgomery, Alabama in defiance of Jim Crow. The way the story is told in history would suggest that Rosa was the first African American to refuse to give up their seat on a bus, but that simply isn't true. In fact there were other women who had done exactly the same thing and some of those stories actually made the news. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudette_Colvin The Rosa Parks story is a perfect example of history being created rather than merely being allowed to happen. As it turns out, civil rights lawyers were waiting for someone whose character was beyond reproach and whose family was equally so. The fear being that when they went to court the judge or jury would use any negative personal traits as a justification for the subjugative treatment. That however does not diminish the role that Rosa Parks played in history, but it does show that her role could've easily been played by someone else.
Who would be picked to organize a boycott of the Montgomery buses? That role would fall into the hands of a young, charismatic, energetic and otherwise unknown preacher that the world would soon hear about-Dr. Martin Luther King II. Until that point King was just one of many ministers involved in the Civil Rights Movement. After the the success of the boycott, King was thrust into world prominence for his use of non-violent protesting techniques that Gandhi and others had used before. Dr. King therefore, from a historical perspective, became the embodiment of non-violent protesting. However, King's non-violent protesting did end violently numerous times, which was the whole point. More importantly it was this "non-violent" use of violence that gave King enormous support in the white community-enough support that King was effectively elevated to hero status. It would be difficult to imagine White people accepting violence and hatred that was directly aimed at them. Of course for every hero there needs to be a villain and no historical figure from the Civil Rights Era fit that bill better than a one time illiterate thief, drug user, pimp and felon than El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Malcolm X (as he was more commonly known) was a man who notwithstanding his own death was never involved in any type of violence. Any talk of violence on his behalf was only the violence used to protect one's self and family. Yet because of this, he was demonized by society and the media used him as King's antithesis. Though both men died for what they believed in and though they shared a common belief in equality and justice, one was dietized while the other was demonized. It cannot be over emphasized that there would be no change in the social structure of the day without the consent of White America; it would have been all but impossible if they felt they were being attacked or intimidated.
Having said all of that it is equally important to realize that the best of men (or women) are men at best (or women). Martin Luther King was an adulterer. Malcolm X referred to white people as "the devil". Various characteristics, positive or negative can be accentuated by history as the need arises. Just like the various components of music can be more prominent at various times giving various styles of music, i.e. the difference between jazz and classical music in really changing the emphasis from melody and harmony in classical music to rhythm and timbre in jazz. So it is true with important historical figures.
Lastly the personal perspective cannot be overlooked. It has been said that one man's patriot is another man's terrorist and history points this out time and time again. The only real difference between between the Founding Fathers and other colonial patriots of that time and Osama bin Laden, Ramzi Yousef and the like is how the individual alive today was impacted by those men. I assure you that if you were to ask a Native American about Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Columbus or others that their response would be much different-and rightfully so. Good and evil are the two sides of the same coin; history is whatever side of the coin that lands on you.