Reflections on Dr. King

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the only non-president individual to have an American holiday. One of my students found that little nugget of knowledge yesterday. My US Government class is mostly Juniors and Seniors. They have watched the 'I Have a Dream Speech' before.* They know the basics of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement from American History class their sophomore year. So I tried something different. We had a short discussion before unlocking the iPads. I asked the kids to find three pieces of knowledge that they did not already know about Dr. King.

*And so should you. Click here for the video and here for the transcript.

The results were really cool. Some of the students discovered that Dr. King was a complex man with personal demons like any other human. Some learned that there were multiple assassination attempts on Dr. King and started to understand the chaos of the battle for Civil Rights in the 1960's. Some were inspired by the fact that he was the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner while I saw a hope in other students eyes when they discovered that he didn't have the greatest academic record in high school. 

I think that more than anything, the kids gained an appreciation for the complexity of both the man and the issue. Dr. King was not a solo fighter for civil rights nor was his vision of nonviolence universally accepted in the black community. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers represent a different fighter in the same fight and reminds us that what history leaves us with does not always portray the dysfunction and confusion of reality. A lot of lessons and videos about the Civil Rights movement leave the reader feeling like activists went home each night with a feeling of satisfaction knowing that they were a part of something great; the tantalizing fear that must have gripped these individuals as they went to sleep each night is often a bit too messy to be included comfortably. The jail time that was served by countless activists is glorified much in the same way that battle scenes are in war movies. The true horror of those wars and the jail cells of southern states is glossed over with nostalgia for a time when we fought for our morals. 

I have to remind myself that being appreciative of Dr. King and the thousands of nameless activists is not good enough. In this short but great article by Jose Vilson, we are encouraged to not just worship Dr. King. We must act. We must get involved. We must get in the trenches of action. We must first remember that there are, in fact, still trenches in which fighting is needed. We live in a complex time of racial justice. This 2007 RAND Corporation report on the NYPD shows that while blacks and Hispanics are stopped at much higher rates than they should be based on these groups percentage of the local population, these two groups are actually stopped less than would be predicted based on the descriptions that are given by those who have reported crimes. In a world where the video below (warning: language) can exist, the RAND report also flags only 0.5% of NYPD officers as being guilty of racial profiling. It is painfully obvious as a teacher of minority students that we are not to our goal. Yet there are, as is so often true of life, few clear answers.

I encouraged my students on Tuesday to intentionally try to make a friend who was another race. When you study history, you realize that nations throughout history have not tried to mix races. The social experiment that has spread throughout the world since the Declaration of Rights of Man and of Citizen was written in 1789 by the French National Assembly has in some parts come to fruition and in other parts failed miserably. We have to work to make it succeed. The momentum of history is against equal rights. This must never be forgotten. 

So that's my challenge to you today if you are reading this - make a friend who is of a different race. Get in the trenches. Call out your friend next time a racial slur is used in a joking way. Have a conversation. Every day, do you best to destroy racism. 

Thanks for reading. 

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