Beyond the Dream, Teaching King in Context

Martin Luther King Hand Raised

Dick DeMarsico, Photographer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, LC-USZ62-126559.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is Monday, January 16, and many educators will take the opportunity to teach about King and his enormous contributions to our society. As educators, how we approach the teaching of this holiday makes an impact on how students understand the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement and whether they make a connection between the past struggles to the current day and their own lives.

Here are some thoughts about teaching the topic in a meaningful way.

Focus on what Martin Luther King, Jr. represents. King is an icon, a larger than life figure and a tremendous orator. These characteristics can lead students to believe that he singlehandedly accomplished the goals of the Civil Rights Movement or that they could never be like King. It’s important to put King’s work into the context of the larger movement of people that he represented. Students need to know about King’s life, that he was a leader of all types of “ordinary” people, and it was them – people of all ages, all walks of life, all different races and religions – that made the Civil Rights Movement possible.

It is important to understand and teach that the Civil Rights Movement was a strategic, on-going  movement with specific objectives. Author Bryan Stevenson talks about the idea that people today often think of the civil rights movement as a 3-day event; “Day One, Rosa Parks gave up her seat on a bus; Day Two, Dr. King led a march on Washington; and Day Three, we signed all these laws.” This simplistic view of the Civil Rights Movement leaves out all of the important elements of strategy, struggle and the actual “movement” of the Civil Rights Movement.

Similarly, it is important to be specific when talking about King and the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s legacy cannot be understood without talking about bigotry, race and racism. That may seem obvious, but often educators are hesitant to talk about race. With thoughtful preparation, however, these issues can be raised in a developmentally appropriate way. It’s also really useful to be specific about the aims of the Civil Rights Movement, not just a vague notion of “equality” but a social justice movement that sought to end segregation, secure voting rights, advocate for worker’s rights, and address economic disparities.

In this way, we have teaching opportunities that connect the past to current events. Students can see both the success of the Civil Rights Movement while also connecting to what forms of systemic discrimination and unequal treatment exist today. For example, examining the Voting Rights Act allows for an opportunity to analyze the 2013 Supreme Court decision which gutted the heart of that law or explore tactics like Voter ID laws which suppress the ability to vote. Similarly, focusing on the importance of youth involvement and leadership in all aspects of the Civil Rights Movement allows for an opportunity to learn about current activism led by youth.

We know that no educator has the luxury or time to focus on all aspects of King’s life and the work of the Civil Rights Movement. Choosing one specific aspect of King’s life or the Civil Rights Movement can give students more opportunity to understand and explore, whether focusing on Selma or The Children’s Crusade or the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis.

These are just a few examples of the many different entry points for learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the work of the Civil Rights Movement. For many, the “go to” entry point is to focus on King’s most famous and most quoted “I Have a Dream” speech, specifically the end with its lyrical, moving repetition. Because this speech has vivid imagery and phrases that make it easy to teach, it can also be oversimplified. We need to go beyond “the Dream” for students to truly make meaning of King’s legacy. King’s dream was deeply rooted not just in “the American Dream,” but also in that time's context of discrimination, racism and bigotry.

However we choose to honor King’s legacy this year, students’ learning should also be rooted in those concepts of injustice.