Today is a day set aside to remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to reflect on his legacy. It’s also important to call out when that legacy is being misrepresented, as has been happening by those who want to limit the teaching and discussion of the subject of race in schools.
Over the past couple of years, and particularly following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the notion of systemic and institutional racism became a topic of national conversation. Recently there has been a backlash, as school boards and state legislatures have passed a number of bills intended to restrict what is taught about race and how. Tennessee House Bill SB 0623, for example, prohibits teaching that could lead a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.” In Texas, House Bill 3979 forbids teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.” It also specifically bans requiring assigning the 1619 Project, based on a series of articles in The New York Times Magazine, as a resource.
How American history and the topic of race are taught is a legitimate and important area of discussion. But what is disturbing is that proponents of these laws are citing none other than Dr. King to support their stance. Here is a representative quote: “Martin Luther King once said that he had a dream that his grandkids would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. But what you have going on … they’re trying to make everything about skin color.” And another: “Critical race theory goes against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us, don’t judge us by the color of our skin, and now they’re embracing it.”
As is true of most things in life, context is everything. Yes, Dr. King spoke hopefully and eloquently of a day when color will not be relevant. But he had no illusions that such was the case today. Consider the opening of that same speech:
“Five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree was a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
He went on to call the Declaration of Independence and Constitution a “promissory note,” pledging the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all people. But, King said, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” It was only after he laid out what he saw as the reality of persistent racism in the present that he went on to share his beautiful, hopeful dream of a better future.
If we look at some of Dr. King’s other speeches and writings, the context becomes even clearer. In his 1967 speech “The Other America,” for example, he notes “we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation, and we must see racism for what it is.” However, in “Where Do We Go From Here,” written that same year, he laments that not everyone sees the same reality. “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
Yet learn we must, adults and children, White and Black. We must understand our American history and our American present if we hope to create a better American future of the type Dr. King dreamed of. How we do that – what we teach and how – is a complex subject, and a debate we should have. But that debate needs to be honest. Dr. King may have had a wonderful dream, but he was not subject to illusions. We should not misuse his words to defend a position he would not support. Today is a day to honor Dr. King’s legacy. Let’s make sure we get it right.