When I was 19 or 20, I traveled to San Francisco for the first time, and happened to stumble upon the memorial there to Dr. King in the Yerba Buena Gardens. Built around the imagery of “justice run[ning] down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” I was most startled by its use of quotes revealing a much more radical side of King than the one all too often frozen in time on the steps on the Lincoln Memorial. The San Francisco memorial challenges and problematizes the sanitized version of Dr. King that will be repeated and misremembered today. My discovery that day in San Francisco, of a stronger and more radical King, was one of the moments that pushed me towards the history classroom and the pursuit of a master’s degree in African-American Studies.
As history teachers, we have a responsibility to challenge the dominant misconception of King in our classrooms as well. Here are just a few of these lessons I hope my students walk away with when I teach about Dr. King:
Sometimes, history happens by accident
Most know that King first made a name for himself as the spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, at only the age of 26. King was little known at the time, and was chosen to be the spokesperson for the movement for two reasons: he was new to the community so had less to loose than many other, and E.D. Nixon, the most prominent civil rights organizer in Montgomery at the time, was working the night shift as train porter the night the decision to boycott was made. Had Nixon been in town, it is likely that no one would have ever heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.
King dreamed of a whole lot more than white and black boys and girls joining hands
Of course, King fought for the end to social and legal segregation. However, his goals were always much more than this. The famous March on Washington was not just about civil rights. It was a march for freedom AND jobs. King had a radical economic critique of capitalism, which might have been more threatening to people than his racial critique. When King was assassinated in Memphis, he was there not to fight for civil rights, but to support a sanitation worker strike. At his death, King was working on what he dubbed the Poor People’s Campaign, in which he envisioned an interracial army of the poor taking over public parts of Washington, DC.
King fought against terrorists
Terrorist are those that use violence and fear for political purposes. There is no better way to characterize those who were responsible for the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, or the murder of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwener, or of Medgar Evers, than as terrorists. Lynching, after all, had been a means of state-sponsored terrorism. Sometimes, the stakes of what King and others fought for are sanitized as well. The violent opposition to legal equality cannot be underestimated.
King was a human being, with flaws
While there are some who argue that openly discussing King’s flaws is an attempt to delegitimatize him, I think to recognize his flaws is to make him a human being, thereby empowering our students who otherwise would see King as god-like. We need to remember King was not perfect. His 1965-66 campaign in Chicago was largely a failure. He was horribly sexist, and ignored or disrespected the words and work of the women around him, including Ella Baker and Septima Clark. To acknowledge these imperfections does not delegitimatize King, but rather makes becoming like him something that is attainable.
To really bring King to life, we need to teach the full picture of who he was. Perhaps instead of going back to the “I Have a Dream” speech for the millionth time, spend time today reading his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or his speech at the Riverside Church against the Vietnam War, and share excerpts from those with students tomorrow.