Social Studies

MLK’s Legacy in the Classroom: Truncated and Tidied Up

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 03, 2018 8 min read
Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis on March 28, 1968. King came to Memphis to support the strike, a move that cost him his life when he was fatally shot on the balcony of a Memphis hotel a week after this appearance.
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When the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial debuted on the National Mall in the District of Columbia, it was beset by a controversy: a quote from King inscribed on one side had been edited and taken out of context.

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of King’s death, that incident stands a good metaphor for how his life and legacy are often taught in public schools: truncated and tidied up.

King’s beliefs were contested within his own circle, he was hounded by the U.S. government for his activism, and after his death, his legacy was far from assured. It was not until later in the century that he became the face of the civil rights movement—eclipsing all others except perhaps Rosa Parks.

By the time he was murdered on April 4, 1968, King had become both more impatient and more broadly focused on poverty and social conditions rather than exclusively legal remedies for segregation. Yet he is still too often reduced in school curricula to just one speech, if not four words: “I have a dream.”

“In a sense, that’s what you do when you want to make someone a national hero. You boil it down: Washington didn’t tell a lie, Lincoln freed the enslaved, and King said you’d be judged by the content of your character. It’s aspirational,” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, a curriculum project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group.

Lynda Lowery, who was injured when state troopers attacked demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., and, at 15, was the youngest to make the march from Selma to Montgomery two weeks later, recalls how King sometimes sat in front of her in church. She remembers how he brought peppermints for the choir and his mesmerizing voice.

But what she particularly cherishes is the complexity of King’s message, which was peaceful but unyielding.

“He said, ‘You can get anybody to be anything with steady, loving confrontation,’ ” she said.

Creating a Hero

How did that last part—confrontation—get so lost? To some degree, historians say, the depiction of an idealized, milquetoast King was one of the results of the push to secure the federal holiday to bear King’s name, signed into law in 1983.

“One factor was some of the immediate desire to resurrect his legacy because he was so attacked and tarnished in his lifetime,” said Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University. “Especially in the build-up to creating the King holiday, there was the desire to make him only heroic.”

Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

Another factor has been the invidious trend of treating the push for civil rights as a fixed, finite movement rather than something that continues to spur people to action.

“Many aspects of the civil rights movement were flattened to focus on sort of color-blind multiculturalism, which was out of line with the civil rights movement, but made its legacies feel complete and distant in the lives of most people,” she said.

Studies of school curricula suggest that students are also getting a less-than-comprehensive picture of the movement. In a 2014 review of states’ academic-content standards on the civil rights movement, Teaching Tolerance found that King was referenced in 37 state standards, but other key figures, facts, and events—especially the extent of white resistance to integration—were absent from most.

And the sanitized, anodyne King still tends to dominate school curricula, probably because “I Have a Dream” is taught beginning at very young ages, Costello said.

“I wish I could banish this stuff before 4th grade. It hardwires it into people’s brains and then teachers later, if they’re good, are un-teaching what kids learned in 1st and 2nd grade,” she said. “No other subject is like that.”

In fact, she surmises, only students in high school AP courses are likely to encounter “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” the essay in which King forcefully calls for direct, nonviolent protest to end segregation.

Teaching ‘Dream’

It’s not that the “I Have a Dream” speech, which King delivered as part of the 1963 March on Washington, is unworthy of teaching, educators say. It’s that it’s almost never taught in its entirety, with an eye to its specific rhetoric, craft, and audience, noted Rashid Darden, an English/language arts and social studies teacher at YouthBuild public charter school in the District of Columbia.

The opening of “Dream” is undeniably angry, listing the indignities faced by the nation’s black citizens, who live on “an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” and of “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Yet what always gets cited is King’s inspiring vision of a future without racial divisions.

That’s for several reasons, including some intrinsic to the speech, which echoes the structure of the black gospel tradition, Darden said.

Martin Luther King with his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in March, 1965.

“The beginning of the sermon is always the driest part. That’s less remembered than the call and response, the homiletics, the improvisation, which is the part that people remember in every sermon,” he said. “I think we don’t look at ‘I Have A Dream’ in its totality because the part that was most moving, and the part that moved everyone, about little black and white children holding hands, is accessible.”

But, he argues, that accessibility cuts in different ways. It was also the most palatable section to white listeners, and to the power brokers who were at that time debating civil rights legislation at the other end of the National Mall, in the U.S. Capitol.

“In 1963, what was a white middle-class person going to be able to relate to but the part that was about equality?” he said. “There is this liberal paternalism that makes Martin Luther King Jr.’s complex and increasingly radical vision reduced to ‘and justice for all’—without understanding how we get to the justice part.”

It is not lost on advocates that the K-12 teaching force continues to be made up overwhelmingly of middle-class white women, who often struggle to make lessons on the civil rights movement and on King feel authentic to a student population that is now more than half nonwhite.

Students’ generally weak preparation on civil rights also means that they often balk when confronted with some of the movement’s different approaches, philosophies (such as the comparatively more aggressive points of view voiced by Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, among others), and internal contradictions. For example, one of the major architects of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, played a less public-facing role in the movement because of his sexual orientation—and he has also been all but lost to the K-12 curriculum for the same reason.

“Students don’t typically have a great understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, the racist North. There is really not much after Harriet Tubman until we get to the civil rights movement,” Darden said. “Their body of knowledge is focused on those couple of things rather than the interconnectedness, the intersections.”

A Deeper Look

Some of the challenges of teaching about King also reflect logistics. History and social studies classes tend to proceed chronologically, and with competing demands on their plates, teachers race before the school year wraps up to cover everything after the second World War.

And sometimes the topic doesn’t easily lend itself to larger schoolwide priorities. Darden’s high school is an alternative school focused on getting students to pass the GED exam and secure construction jobs.

But, he argues, good teachers can find clever ways to include these crucial topics in their curricula.

The GED requires students to evaluate paired texts for the strength of their arguments. So, if he were teaching such a lesson, Darden said he’d juxtapose one of King’s speeches with one given by his contemporary and sometime antagonist Malcolm X. Or, to illuminate the important role that women and family played in the civil rights movement, the teacher might choose a selection of the memoir that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, dictated to a journalist.

There are more resources available to teachers, thanks to the last few decades of scholarship, said Chatelain, the Georgetown professor.

“With the evolution of African-American history and more voices at the table of analysis, we have the opportunity to have a rich and nuanced understanding of King, including the things that made him so exceptional as well as his limitations, and to understand why making change in the world is so complicated and difficult,” she said.

Martin Luther King Jr. gives a news conference in 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., announcing he and other black leaders have called for federal Army occupation of Birmingham in the wake of a church bombing and shootings which left six black people dead.

In advance of the 50th anniversary of King’s death, for example, the nonprofit education group Facing History and Ourselves released a curriculum focused on the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, whose plight King had come to the city to support just before his death.

The botched quote on the King memorial in Washington has since been removed. It will take longer for K-12 educators to deepen their teaching of King. But a good place to start is by accessing and making sense of the primary source documents that paint a more nuanced picture, the educators said.

“There are so many lessons to be learned about his death and legacy, and the best teachers in this moment are the teachers who are willing to help students access accurate information and then let that information guide the conversation,” Chatelain said. “Not just on April 4, but through the course of our education. It is a conversation to have every day.”

Lowery sees it that way, too. Fifty years later, although she still mourns King’s death, she is among those who believe that a focus on him alone risks losing sight of the totality of the civil rights movement.

“I felt like I lost a family member, and still do. I still think of him, and still hear in the back of my head his words—a steady, loving confrontation is a nonviolent principle,” she said. “But I also want to highlight the people that worked as foot soldiers. And I want to get the history straight.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2018 edition of Education Week as MLK: Watering Down the Legacy?


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