In third grade, I remember learning about Martin Luther King. We listened to his “I Have A Dream Speech.” We read about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. We looked at photos of the marches in Selma. We were, rightly, presented with an image of King as an American saint, a figure of America’s highest aspirations and our best selves.
This was good, and right, and fitting. And it was incomplete.
To be blunt, for White folks like myself, MLK is safe. He’s easy. He’s non-threatening. He has been reduced, as many have pointed out, to a four-word adage that requires absolutely zero self-reflection.
For many Whites, MLK presents an idealized vision of a societal problem being solved without the discomfort of having to see oneself as a part of that problem. We can look at the blurry black and white images of fire hoses and police dogs without acknowledging our daily enjoyment of White privilege. We can hear MLK’s words, feel inspired, and, in a wry twist of irony, feel proud of being American, all without that most dreaded of White emotions; guilt.
In an early section of his immortalized speech, King speaks directly to the Black community: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” Among King’s many virtues is his commitment to nonviolence, yet these words, for all of their adherence to a higher plane, open the door for voluntary national amnesia.
If this is the only King we know, the one committed to nonviolence and social harmony, then Whites, frankly, do not have to share in any culpability that would warrant some degree of introspection. MLK’s legacy risks becoming a symbol of Black non-violence instead of what it ought to be; a blistering protest against White Supremacy.
Getting Honest About Dr. King
As educators, we need to provide the opportunity for our students to engage with Martin Luther King Day in a more dynamic, nuanced, and frankly, honest way.
In addition to the inspiring and hopeful words of “I Have A Dream,” we need to present our students with a contrast of King’s undoubtedly worthy dream of living in an America where “little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls as sisters and brothers” alongside his pointed, and arguably unchanged truth that, “Whites, it must be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their superiority that the White people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
Last February, I presented my students with a wide array of texts by Black thinkers including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, and the Black Panther Party. By presenting students with multiple perspectives, my students were able to break out of simply aligning civil rights with the dilution of MLK’s narrative.
Students were able to find texts they agreed with as well as texts they found woefully misguided. They juxtaposed assimilation versus Black Power. They debated the virtues of MLK’s nonviolent civil disobedience against Malcolm X’s philosophy of ‘By Any Means Necessary.’ In the end, they were able to achieve their own informed understanding of racial justice and civil rights. This is certainly more useful than the thoughtless and rote recitation of MLK’s “I Have a Dream.”
I think back to my early school days learning about MLK and the civil rights movement, and not once was I pushed to think of my place in the narrative. We need to push our students beyond basking in the soothing vision of King’s dream, and sit with the discomfort, disquiet, and disapproval of King’s indictments if we are to emerge as the society King so gloriously extolled.