Going Beyond MLK’s ‘Dream’ and Getting Uncomfortable in the Classroom

Jan 16, 2018 12:00:00 AM


In third grade, I remember learning about Martin Luther King. We listened to his “I Have A Dream Speech.” We read about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. We looked at photos of the marches in Selma. We were, rightly, presented with an image of King as an American saint, a figure of America’s highest aspirations and our best selves. This was good, and right, and fitting. And it was incomplete. [pullquote position="right"]To be blunt, for White folks like myself, MLK is safe.[/pullquote] He’s easy. He’s non-threatening. He has been reduced, as many have pointed out, to a four-word adage that requires absolutely zero self-reflection. For many Whites, MLK presents an idealized vision of a societal problem being solved without the discomfort of having to see oneself as a part of that problem. We can look at the blurry black and white images of fire hoses and police dogs without acknowledging our daily enjoyment of White privilege. We can hear MLK’s words, feel inspired, and, in a wry twist of irony, feel proud of being American, all without that most dreaded of White emotions; guilt. In an early section of his immortalized speech, King speaks directly to the Black community: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” Among King’s many virtues is his commitment to nonviolence, yet these words, for all of their adherence to a higher plane, open the door for voluntary national amnesia. If this is the only King we know, the one committed to nonviolence and social harmony, then Whites, frankly, do not have to share in any culpability that would warrant some degree of introspection. MLK’s legacy risks becoming a symbol of Black non-violence instead of what it ought to be; a blistering protest against White Supremacy.

Getting Honest About Dr. King

As educators, we need to provide the opportunity for our students to engage with Martin Luther King Day in a more dynamic, nuanced, and frankly, honest way. In addition to the inspiring and hopeful words of “I Have A Dream,” we need to present our students with a contrast of King’s undoubtedly worthy dream of living in an America where “little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls as sisters and brothers” alongside his pointed, and arguably unchanged truth that, “Whites, it must be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to re-educate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their superiority that the White people of America believe they have so little to learn.” Last February, I presented my students with a wide array of texts by Black thinkers including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, and the Black Panther Party. By presenting students with multiple perspectives, [pullquote]my students were able to break out of simply aligning civil rights with the dilution of MLK’s narrative.[/pullquote] Students were able to find texts they agreed with as well as texts they found woefully misguided. They juxtaposed assimilation versus Black Power. They debated the virtues of MLK’s nonviolent civil disobedience against Malcolm X’s philosophy of ‘By Any Means Necessary.’ In the end, they were able to achieve their own informed understanding of racial justice and civil rights. This is certainly more useful than the thoughtless and rote recitation of MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” I think back to my early school days learning about MLK and the civil rights movement, and not once was I pushed to think of my place in the narrative. We need to push our students beyond basking in the soothing vision of King’s dream, and sit with the discomfort, disquiet, and disapproval of King’s indictments if we are to emerge as the society King so gloriously extolled.

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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