Education Week - April 11, 2018 - 11
MLK's Legacy in the Classroom: Truncated and Tidied Up
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Sam Melhorn/The Commercial Appeal via AP-File
than on 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
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 his 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 buildup to creating the
King holiday, there was the desire to make him
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 colorblind 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,"
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 states' 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
unteaching 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 Advanced Placement courses are likely
to encounter "Letter From a Birmingham Jail,"
the essay in which King forcefully calls for direct,
nonviolent protest to end segregation.
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.
"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."
The Accessible Message
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 is still 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 com-
paratively 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
Time and Logistics
Some of the challenges of teaching about King
also reflect logistics. History and social studies
classes tend to proceed chronologically, and with
competing demands, 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 General Educational
Development exam and secure construction jobs.
But, he argues, good teachers can find
clever ways to include these crucial topics in
The GED exam 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 more-recent scholarship, said Chatelain, the Georgetown professor.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph
Abernathy, right, lead a march on behalf of
striking sanitation workers in Memphis, days
before his death on April 4, 1968.
"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
In advance of the 50th anniversary of King's
death last week, 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
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,
"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."
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
"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-'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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