When I think back to what I was taught about Martin Luther King Jr. as a child, I remember a speech about a dream, a man whose voice was solid and unfaltering, a march that drew millions, and an end to segregation. We were led to believe that the Civil Rights Act solved this country’s greatest ills. We were taught that racism only lived in people who were part of the KKK. We never spoke about the violence of the civil rights movement. We never spoke about white privilege. We never spoke about King’s work with the poor or his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War. We never questioned how or why he was assassinated. We never even read his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The story we learned was uncomplicated, singular.
This narrative, like a powerful but tragic fairy tale, allowed us as young students to treat him as a relic of the past. We were not encouraged to ask the difficult questions: In what ways does segregation still exist? How did it morph and take on a new shape? What are the laws that support its continuance? What can we learn from King’s legacy about protest and action? Who were the bystanders in the 60’s? How were they also culpable? How are we acting as bystanders today? What are the roots of racism and economic inequality in America? What are the big systems that need to change? The questions today are endless…
As I learn more about the history erased from school curriculums, I feel an intense anger and resentment. By teaching students that the war has been won, we are breeding complacency. We must be able to see how the past lives on within us and within our society, otherwise we will never have the conviction to fight. I am only now beginning to clearly identify the parallels in every struggle and the patterns of oppression. I am finally learning to doubt everything sold to me by my education.
For example, if we had been more aware of the media’s vilification of King, perhaps we would be more critical of national portrayals of protests and leaders today. In his last speech to the striking sanitation workers, King said, “The press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that.” Today, the same issues arise with media coverage. Protestors are deemed rioters, outsiders, extremists. Even King himself was deemed an extremist, but he found a way to embrace the term. “It disturbed me when I first heard it. But when I began to consider the true meaning of the word, I decided that perhaps I would like to think of myself as an extremist — in the light of the spirit which made Jesus an extremist for love,” King said. Students must be taught to question what they hear and read. What better way to teach them than by illuminating the media’s failures in the past?
Similarly, if we were taught that our legal system promotes hate and prejudice as a means of control, maybe we could forge true alliances. King knew that the system was built to divide and conquer. He openly discussed how Jim Crow laws were developed as a strategy for keeping wages low in the South. Following the march on Selma, King said:
You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.
Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.
To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.
…The Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.
We have all been raised in a racist culture, and to pretend that young people will treat each other without prejudice simply because a teacher said they should is naive. We must first become more aware of why racism exists. Only then can we fight against its perpetuation.
Furthermore, if as young people we were taught that our government actively tried to harm King, perhaps we would understand the danger of surveillance today. Instead, we are led to criticize other countries for their authoritarianism while remaining oblivious to the violence perpetrated by our own federal agencies. Only recently have I begun to research and understand programs such as COINTELPRO. I know so little about the revolutionaries that the State has murdered and imprisoned. We were not taught about Fred Hampton, who was shot in his bed. We are not taught about the false allegations made against Assata Shakur, imprisoning her for a decade. We are not taught about the countless undercover agents who worked to disrupt and dismantle Black Liberation organizations. And yet, even today, an undercover cop in Oakland was discovered at a rally trying to urge the protestors toward violence. When he was caught, he pulled a gun on the marchers. History repeats itself, but we cannot see the repetition if the history is intentionally hidden.
King knew the fight would continue for decades to come. He understood that the roots of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, and American imperialism, were deep within our economic system. He advocated for a safety net of guaranteed employment, livable wages, universal health care, quality education, and decent housing for all Americans. King argued that the profit-based focus of capitalism created hierarchy and injustices that could not be undone without an upheaval of the system. He believed Americans needed to undergo a thorough shift in values – promoting life, justice, and equality over profit and possession. When he was assassinated, he was planning a Poor People’s Campaign that involved camping out in DC, similar to the Occupy Movement of today. These are the lessons we must begin teaching our students. The classroom should be the antidote to mainstream media and consumerist culture. Advocacy, protest, and civil disobedience are the tools our young people need in order to fight injustice and create an America that lives up to its ideals. This is the legacy we should be celebrating.