Ditch 'Old Hickory' and Put Martin Luther King on the $20 Bill

The civil-rights leader helped America to realize its founding ideals as surely as any president, and ending the run of exclusively white faces on bank notes is long overdue.
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Dick DeMarsico/Library of Congress

During the 2008 election, Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote an article for Culture11 about the significance of a Barack Obama victory. "On television screens from Bedford Stuyvesant to South Central Los Angeles, images will be broadcast of a black family—a father, a mother, and two little girls—moving into the White House," he wrote. "Whatever you think of policy, the mere fact of electing a black man president, sending him to live in the nation's most iconic, so far whites-only house, would puncture holes through the myth of black inferiority, violating America's racial narrative so fundamentally as to forever change the way this country thinks of blacks, and the way blacks think of this country—and themselves."

I still think Williams had a point. Today's six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds have no memory of an America with anything other than a black president. What seemed improbable to us as recently as 2007 is, for them, a reality so normal they don't even think about it. Yet these same kids are still growing up in a country where the faces celebrated on the paper currency are all white. I don't want to overstate the importance of that. There is a long list of suboptimal policies that are vastly more urgent to remedy. Still, the lack of diversity in this highly symbolic realm is objectionable, and improving matters would seem to be very easy.

Martin Luther King Jr. is a universally beloved icon who led one of the most important struggles for justice in American history. When Gallup asked what figure from the 20th century was most admired, MLK beat out every single American, and was second overall in the rankings, placing behind only Mother Teresa. The case for putting him on money is not just elevating a man simply for the sake of diversity. Yet it would address the fact that, but for racism, our money would've long been more diverse. The only loser here would be the historic figure kicked off of a bill. Do any of them deserve the boot? The options are all of the following:

George Washington – $1 bill

Thomas Jefferson – $2 bill

Abraham Lincoln – $5 bill

Alexander Hamilton – $10 bill

Andrew Jackson – $20 bill

Ulysses S. Grant – $50 bill

Benjamin Franklin – $100 bill

As if to underscore how much MLK belongs, notice that most of the men on this list—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Hamilton, and Franklin—were arguably indispensable to the nation in its struggle to realize the promise of its founding ideals. King meets that standard.

Whatever one thinks of Jackson and Grant, they do not. So which of them to replace? Before drawing straws or picking a name out of a hat, I thought to ask, "Was either particularly instrumental in genocidal acts?" Then the choice was clear.

Just months ago, Jillian Keenan argued the following at Slate:

My public high school wasn’t the best, but we did have an amazing history teacher. Mr. L, as we called him, brought our country’s story to life. So when he taught us about the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson’s campaigns to force at least 46,000 Cherokees, Choctaws, Muscogee-Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles off their ancestral lands, my classmates and I were stricken. It was unfathomable that thousands of Native American men, women, and children were forced to march West, sometimes freezing to death or starving because U.S. soldiers wouldn’t let them bring extra food or blankets. It was hard to hear that the Choctaw Nation lost up to a third of its population on the death march. It was disorienting to learn that what amounted to ethnic cleansing had come at the insistence of an American president. But then it was lunchtime, and we pulled out our wallets in the cafeteria.

Andrew Jackson was there, staring out from every $20 bill.

We had been carrying around portraits of a mass murderer all along, and had no idea. Andrew Jackson engineered a genocide. He shouldn’t be on our currency.

After granting that Jackson's rise from humble beginnings was symbolically inspiring, Keenan noted that the Tennessean accumulated much of his fortune as a slave trader. "Even in historical context, our seventh president falls short," she argued. "His racist policies were controversial even in his own time. After the Indian Removal Act only narrowly passed Congress, an 1832 Supreme Court ruling declared it unconstitutional. Jackson ignored that decision. In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a passionate letter calling Jackson’s policies '… a crime that really deprives us as well as the Cherokees of a country, for how could we call the conspiracy that should crush these poor Indians our government, or the land that was cursed by their parting and dying imprecations our country any more?'"

We needn't definitively adjudicate Jackson's legacy to reach this conclusion: Martin Luther King Jr. is a more deserving symbol for the $20 bill than Old Hickory.

He belongs on the merits. His face would end a run of all-white currency, a shameful legacy of generations in which only whites were allowed in positions of power. And the diversity MLK would add to our currency goes far beyond skin color. He wasn't a president, or a member of the ruling elite like Hamilton and Franklin. He was a religious leader, a community organizer, a civil-rights champion, and an anti-war protester. He is a reminder that a citizen need not be a privileged insider to effect change—a man with a strong voice, speaking on behalf of a just cause, can bring about historic progress peacefully, through exhortation and persuasion. And there's not a single historic atrocity to the man's name!

All that leaves is the reverse side of the bill.

MLK is the best symbol of the civil-rights movement, but many preceded him in that long struggle. They ought to be featured on $20's flip side. Perhaps it could include a timeline stretching from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks, putting them in the company of Susan B. Anthony and Sacajawea, the women featured on U.S. coins. I suppose Jackson might be upset at my judgment that he is less deserving of our esteem than those figures. Then again, he might well support my plan. After all, few men in American history were as adamant about their hatred of paper money.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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