King’s Legacy: A Pacifist, A Revolutionary or Both?

While in school, (once the 3rd Monday in January drew closer) I was taught about Martin Luther King Junior – a Black man who had a dream. A dream that one day all Black and White children could play together, live harmoniously and not be judged by the color of their skin, but by who they are on the inside. What my teachers failed to teach me every year was that King was more than just a dream and a speech he delivered on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

They failed to show me that his politics around race, class, war, and so much more, were more complex than advocating for peace and equality as well as that his ideas evolved throughout his lifetime.

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As an educator, I am constantly thinking about what my students already know and don’t know about history and historical figures like MLK. Chances are, students have been taught very little or have heard a reductionist, whitewashed version of the same story. Decades of blood, sweat, tears, marches, protests, boycotts, speeches, negotiations and brutalization get swept under the rug and students are misled to believe that “it’s all in the past.”

My friend recently posted a conversation on Facebook that she overheard on the train between a White father and his child. The child asked whether segregation meant that Black children and White children couldn’t sit on the same sides of the bus, to which the father responded yes, but it’s all “over” now.

That was the end of what could have been a fruitful conversation about race, racism, power and privilege.  

While yes, technically, legal segregation is over, New York City remains one of the most segregated school systems in America. In fact, we are more segregated today than schools were during the start of the integration movement. We also have a rampantly racist President in office who recently referred to Haiti, El Salvador and all the countries in Africa as “shithole”, but we can sit wherever we want on a bus so, you know, everything is alright and Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has come to fruition.

Let freedom ring!

Right? Yeah, no.

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King’s dream is far from being actualized and is actually a dream deferred as Langston Hughes once called it. We have a lot of work to do and a long way to go before we hear the bells of freedom ring. So what are we to do about this? As educators, it is up to us to ensure that we are providing students with a full and accurate account of history so that they can learn from the past and create a new future. (If you don’t know what the Sankofa principle is – check out our post on it and do more research!)

Martin Luther King Jr. – The Pacifist.
The mainstream media/White America often paints MLK as a docile man who championed justice through a strictly peaceful and non-violent way. They boast about King’s peaceful methods, winning him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and thus becoming the youngest person to receive this honor. They are also quick to post quotes like, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” and “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great of a burden to bear.” Why? Because these accolades and words serve to reinforce a reductionist and safe ideology of King as a loving, peaceful man who just wanted people of all backgrounds to get along. Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for brotherhood and peaceful methods of protest and demonstrations and cautioned the Black community against using violence, as is evident from his “I Have a Dream” speech:

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… The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

However, three years later, he also said: “I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” As educators we must work to complicate MLK’s fragmented narrative to give our students a more nuanced and accurate window into his evolving ideology and work.

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Martin Luther King Jr. – The Revolutionary.
In 1967, King spoke about “The Three Evils of Society” at the National Conference on New Politics with a very different tone and message than he had four years earlier when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He laments that he and others like him were once “idealists” and the “dreamers of a dream” who are now disillusioned and betrayed – with their “hopes…blasted and [their] dreams… shattered”. He goes on to reflect on the first time he was ever booed, and by Black men at that:

For twelve years, I and others like me, have held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about, the not too distant day when they would have freedom, all here, now. I had urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing me because they felt that we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted, turn into a frustrating nightmare.

As you go on to read the rest of the speech, you can feel the anger, the frustration, the sense of hopelessness felt by King and the Black community because White America and the United States government failed to, once again, deliver on their promise for equality and justice. And so, with this, we can see an evolution in MLK’s vision for freedom and justice for Black people and other marginalized folx as well as a sharper critique against the role White people and the U.S. government play in keeping said groups oppressed.

Martin Luther King Jr. – The Pacifist AND The Revolutionary.
I don’t believe Martin Luther King Jr. was either a pacifist or a revolutionary; he was both. We would be doing a disservice to his legacy and our students if we taught about him in a dichotomous way. As I reflect on my own practice, I was wondering how I could do this with students. I decided to create a two-part lesson where students are asked to examine and compare Martin Luther king Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” with his “The unnamed-3.jpgThree Evils of Society” speech. With this, they would not only compare the similarities and differences of the speeches, but also reflect on the evolution of MLK’s politics. At the end, I include extension activities and one of them asks students to think about how they wish to be remembered, because as Gloria Anzaldua says, “I write to record what others erase when I speak, to re-write the stories others have miswritten about me, about you.” If you don’t write your own story, your history, then others could have the power to shape and twist their own narratives about you, which is why I included an autobiography planner and writing activity. You can check out the resource here!

We have a long road ahead of us as we continue to struggle and fight against the evils of racism and White supremacy in hopes of one day being able to achieve King’s dream. In this time, let’s make sure to embrace teaching as a political act and a powerful weapon.

Let’s make sure not a single child grows up to think only of the “I Have a Dream” version of MLK.

Not a single one.

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