Opinion
Social Studies Opinion

What I Wish I Knew About Teaching Black History Before I Left the Classroom

Icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin don’t need to be flawless for us to learn from them
By Bettina L. Love — February 12, 2024 4 min read
Photo illustration of colorful 60's geometric design patterns mimicking screen-printing over historic photograph. - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, addresses a gathering in the riot-torn area of Los Angeles, Aug. 18, 1965. Bayard Rustin, King's aide, is at left.
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In schools across the country, Black History Month is 28 or 29 days packed with the acknowledgement and celebration of Black icons whose inventions, speeches, social movements, writings, poetry, philosophical teachings, and athletic and artistic abilities changed the course of the United States and affected people worldwide.

I remember my days as a Black elementary school teacher—eyes beaming with joy, proudly introducing students to a new Black icon each day in February. Time was precious in the shortest month of the year, and, with so many greats, my classes’ exploration was necessarily cursory. There was the occasional assigned book report, which attempted to have students study these figures beyond bullet points, but I failed to present the Black activists, artists, innovators, inventors, politicians, and scholars as relatable, real people struggling with what it means to be human. We explored how they fought racism, but I failed to portray them as people with emotions beyond that of resiliency—people with insecurities, personal conflicts, fears, doubts, and sometimes in need of redemption because of the harm they caused to the people they loved.

To be honest, I never discussed their inner lives for fear I would somehow knock them off their pedestals. I did not want my students to see them as anything less than perfect. I was scared that highlighting what I perceived as flaws would increase the likelihood that they would be unacceptable subjects for Black History Month. Perhaps most upsetting, I could not bring myself to tell my students that vital figures in Black history have also been lauded as queer icons, including Alvin Ailey, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry. At that time, I had not processed my own internalized homophobia. I was scared to be an openly Black queer educator and I believed that highlighting the queerness of these Black icons would somehow out me.

It wasn’t until I left the classroom that I learned about one proud Black gay man in particular who did not hide his sexuality. The civil, human, and gay rights icon Bayard Rustin was the strategic mastermind behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. explore Gandhian philosophies of nonviolence as one of his closest advisers.

King ultimately delivered his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” at the March on Washington, which Rustin organized in just eight weeks in a time before cellphones, social media, and email. However, King’s and Rustin’s relationship leading up to that pivotal moment was complicated by societal pressures. Many in the movement at the time believed that a Black gay man should not lead the fight for civil rights. As essential to the Civil Rights Movement as he was, many thought Rustin’s sexuality would overshadow their efforts.

In 1960, King was confronted with his loyalty for Rustin. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first Black congressman elected in New York state, threatened to falsely proclaim that Rustin and King were lovers for his own political gain. Instead of standing in truth, King distanced himself from Rustin and, for a period of time, lost his most trusted adviser. King fell to the fear of homophobia, and Rustin rightfully felt betrayed by King. Partially as the result of Rustin’s exile, the movement for civil rights made little progress from 1960 to 1963.

But the time would come for King to redeem himself, earn Rustin’s trust back, and face his fear of being associated with a gay man. Understanding how vital Rustin was to the movement as a visionary and King’s own personal growth as an organizer, King was instrumental in ensuring Rustin was brought back as the lead organizer for the March on Washington. When segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina learned of Rustin’s role, the Republican delivered a speech on the Senate floor in an attempt to derail the march, saying that Rustin was a communist, a draft dodger, and a homosexual. But Thurmond failed. King continued to support Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph, a prominent leader of the movement and director of the march, defended Rustin. The march went on as planned with an estimated 250,000 people in attendance.

The personal journey of King and Rustin is a story of two great Black men working through their fears, insecurities, and doubts to hold one of the most significant protests in American history for racial and economic justice. Their friendship can teach students so much about how to be a good friend, how to stand up against injustice (even if you back down the first time), how to face your fears, and how to repair harm in your most important relationships. Through King and Rustin, we can teach students about redemption, humanize King as a person with flaws, and honor Rustin’s achievements. This goes beyond mere bulletin boards and bullet points; it’s a narrative of Black icons that humanizes them.

I wish I could go back to my elementary teaching days with this knowledge; it would have humanized me as well.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2024 edition of Education Week as What I Wish I Had Known About Teaching Black History

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