If Educators Really Wish to Honor Dr. King…

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I originally wrote a version of this article in 2007, but the topic is even more timely during today’s period of introspection regarding violence, civility, gun control, widening wealth disparities and education reform. Our daily discourse is filled with reckless nostalgia for the good ol’ days of the White Citizens Councils and the preposterous claims that Dr. King would love charter schools, the destruction of unions, the demonization of public school teachers and having poor children do the work of school janitors.

It is unconscionable to reduce Dr. King’s life, work and sacrifice to the few paltry sentences fed to us by the textbook industry or Republican politicians cherry-picking happy talk rather than confront the societal demons King identified and that are still with us.

This epidemic of ignorance can only be cured by educators! (also read: The Help: A Teacher’s Guide for more resources)


This Monday is Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday and February is African American History Month. Both occasions were created as a way of honoring the sacrifice of Dr. King and the contributions of millions of African Americans before him. It is a somber occasion in which to confront the hideous crimes of institutionalized racism and to celebrate the achievements of people who overcame insurmountable odds to enjoy the unfulfilled promises of the United States Constitution.Schools are the natural setting to inform students of our history, warts and all. Yet we tell so few historical stories and most of those narratives are watered down until they become fairy tales and meaningless happy talk. Face it, ______ (Black, Women’s, Latino…) History Months are necessary because the information presented to students is so biased, simplistic, incomplete and often times just plain wrong.

Please take a moment to answer the following questions. Think of it as a quiz if you wish.

  1. What do you know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?
  2. What do your school social studies texts say about his life and work?
  3. How much class time is dedicated to the life and times of Dr. King?
  4. Have you done any independent reading or research into the life of Dr. King?
  5. Why did Dr. King speak in Washington that day in August 1963?
  6. What was the event called?*
  7. Was Dr. King the only speaker?
  8. Why wasn’t’ President Kennedy at the speech? Wasn’t he Dr. King’s friend?
  9. Who was A. Phillip Randolph?
  10. Who is John Lewis?
  11. Who was Bayard Rustin?
  12. Where was Malcolm X that day in 1963?
  13. Why was Dr. King in Memphis before he was assassinated?
  14. Bonus question: Are there serving members of Congress who voted against the federal law establishing the King holiday?

Many teachers use the King holiday as an opportunity to tell students “all about” Dr. King. “He had a dream…” They use resources like these fabulous materials recommended for teachers on the web.

  1. http://abcteach.com/peace/martin__king1.htm
  2. http://www.windmillworks.com/games/dream.htm

Note: I highly recommend you click the links to see the garbage used to honor one of the greatest men who ever lived.You can’t teach about Dr. King without the “I Have a Dream Speech,” right? Textbooks and various multimedia products have sliced, diced and filleted a 30-second perky excerpt from Dr. King’s speech.

Since students will be unlikely to be introduced to any of Dr. King’s other rhetorical output, might I suggest that you play the entire speech for your students. Of course you should listen to it yourself beforehand. The entire speech runs approximately 17 minutes. If the Internet has educational value, it begins with the access to primary sources.

You may find a COMPLETE video clip of the ENTIRE “Dream” speech, alongside the unabridged transcription of the speech at the following sites:

So, what do you think? Do the content, intent and emotion of the whole speech paint a different picture than the one portrayed by the one-paragraph textbook version recited by politicians?In an age when educators profess profound concern about information literacy why not discuss why the entire message of the speech has been hidden by curricular omission. That and the substance of Dr. King’s actual speech should generate a few year’s worth of curriculum alone.

Schools are the natural setting to inform students of our history, warts and all. Yet we tell so few historical stories and most of those narratives are watered down until they become fairy tales and meaningless happy talk.

Even Google got in the business of infantilizing the life of Dr. King with today’s logo.

On this Martin Luther King Birthday National Holiday, I give thanks to the World Wide Web and YouTube for ensuring that future generations of children will be free to learn history aside from the standardized content being currently delivered to them.


Supplemental Resources:Educators serious about sharing the heroic ongoing American struggle for civil rights should read Herbert Kohl’s brilliant book, “She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” The first half of the book demonstrates how the Rosa Parks story has been turned into a fantasy taught to children and offers the facts children are denied. The second half of the book discusses how teachers can fairly teach complex or controversial issues to children of all ages. I also recommend, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History by James Loewen.


*The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963.

Why do you suppose “jobs” gets left out of the classroom discussion?

Watch the following clip and see how Dr. King might have responded to the magical thinking on race being advanced by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or Governor Walker or Governor Kasich or Governor Daniels or Governor Christie.


Follow Gary Stager on Twitter: www.twitter.com/garystager

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