In anticipation of this day, I’ve been doing some work to remind myself of who Dr. King was, what he stood for, and what his vision for this country truly was. In my reflections, I couldn’t help but think of what we’re teaching our children about his legacy. About what we ourselves have been taught about his legacy.
After seeing minimal think pieces on social media, hearing of few events going on in the nearby area, and learning that my own university had nothing planned to honor King’s legacy, I reached out to a high school teacher of mine as a last ditch effort at scrounging up some hope. I asked if my alma mater had in fact planned anything to commemorate this monumental day. If maybe, just maybe, they had planned something that would begin to change King’s narrative in schools and shed some light on the real King (or as Cornel West so eloquently called him, The Radical King). I was unsurprisingly disappointed when she told me that to her knowledge they hadn’t done anything. There was, she said, a quote this morning over the announcements, but nothing more.
In that moment I became overwhelmed with both sadness and anger. I was angry thinking about the fact that schools are ignoring that it has been 50 years since the man who called for radical justice and equity on a national stage had been murdered because of his love for people and his hope for a better country. I was annoyed that it seemed like educators were ignoring the surveillance and terrorism King was subject to in his days on this earth. Ignoring that before his story became one of a peace-loving, hand-holding pacifist, he was number 6 on the list of most hated Americans in a Gallup poll. I was furious that I had never learned in school that Reagan publicly chastised this man, blaming him for his own assassination and then created a holiday JUST to improve his own approval ratings. I was livid that I was never taught and students today are not being taught that White clergy rebuked him, saying he wasn’t doing the work of God; enraged that I hadn’t read his response to the White moderate until after I graduated from undergrad. My heart hurt at the continual whitewashing, diminishing, and erasure of King’s true legacy.
The lack of acknowledgement of this day in schools and the perpetual narrative changing speaks to the overwhelming desire of those who benefit from a White supremacist and capitalist regime to preserve the status quo. There’s simply no other explanation.
Our children don’t need to learn a diluted version of Dr. King. That doesn’t help them. It doesn’t prepare them for the world they will encounter or help them navigate the world in which they currently reside. It doesn’t help them to think of how they can disrupt injustice, agitate corruption, or infiltrate systems. It doesn’t help them to think critically about what it means to civically disobey (hint: it doesn’t mean making anyone comfortable; in fact, it means inconveniencing those that are most comfortable until they acknowledge the problem at hand).
Today, like many days, I was disappointed in our educational system. We have to do better. Our kids deserve better.
Oh yeah – and let’s start putting some respect on his name. He was Dr. King.
For those seeking to be co-conspirators with me in changing how we teach our students about Dr. King, here are some resources (feel free to drop more below):
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.” – 1964, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech
"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." – Letter from a Birmingham Jail
The Atlantic’s Special Edition
Martin Luther King Jr. Was a Radical. We Must Respect His Legacy