Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Atlantic has dedicated its April issue to Dr. King's legacy, capturing a range of perspectives and angles. Eve Ewing tackled education and integration:
Every year, millions of American students are told that King’s hope has come to fruition, and their own technically desegregated classrooms are held up as evidence. This is a lie, one that feels good and makes some sense if you consider that it is predicated on the mid-20th-century image of segregation. Our children are shown pictures of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford facing the National Guard in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 and of U.S. marshals in New Orleans escorting 6-year-old Ruby Bridges to school in 1960. They learn that this, and only this, is what injustice looks like. The absence of de jure segregation, of furious mobs spitting and screaming at the front door, is heralded as the true test of justice—a low, low bar. But even by this standard, we aren’t doing all that well.
Here's Stephen Sawchuk in Education Week, expanding on the sanitization of Dr. King's message:
As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of King’s death, the incident is nevertheless 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.”
It is important to grapple withe the magnitude and expansive of King's beliefs. Here he is, in his own words, in a 1967 speech, on the complexities of pursuing economic justice:
The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites. Even the psychological adjustment is far from formidable. Having exaggerated the emotional difficulties for decades, when demands for new conduct became inescapable, white Southerners may have trembled under the strain but they did not collapse. Even the more significant changes involved in voter registration required neither large monetary nor psychological sacrifice. Spectacular and turbulent events that dramatized the demand created an erroneous impression that a heavy burden was involved. The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact. The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.
Dr. King reserved harsher words still for the political moderates in the white community, who urged caution regarding the Civil Rights agenda. Here's an excerpt from King's famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Everyone should take time today to read primary sources. Hear Dr. King in his own words. His vision for racial an economic justice remains radical, and yet most Americans go through school hearing only snippets of a single, soaring speech.
When you're done reading Dr. King's writing, here's Terence Moore of The Undefeated, interviewing Andrew Young, one of King's top advisors, about what happened on April 4, 1968:
I was in court all day long, and Martin had closed on such a poignant note the night before [at Mason Temple in downtown Memphis], when he came out to speak with a fever in the pouring-down rain. But there were 11,000 or 12,000 people there, and he dragged himself up, and that’s where he made that famous speech, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the promised land.’ He had been feeling really bad that day, and that next morning of April 4, I expected him to sleep late, and he probably did. But I had to be in court at 9 a.m. because we were challenging the injunction that wanted us to stop from marching [in Memphis for striking sanitation workers].
This interview was touching, because it's a good reminder that heroes are human. They have breakfast, poke fun at their friends, and swap stories.
And sometimes, they get murdered for their beliefs.
Take time to do some deep reflection today. I have interspersed the reading list with videos of Dr. King's speeches. It's worth listening to them.
Have a justice-filled day ...