At the beginning of this school year, a Philadelphia student asked a question that briefly took her teacher’s breath away: “Are you more Malcolm or are you more Martin?”
Ridgeway replied, “Martin Luther King believed in violence.”
Then she says her students looked at her as if they didn’t know what she was talking about.
“He used violence to his advantage,” she explained. “He knew that his ideas and what he was asking for would elicit violence.” She told them that King knew that organizing a march of civil rights activists would spark a violent backlash that would make white people “so uncomfortable and get so much media attention…[White people] would realize this is a terrible thing that we’re doing—using water hoses, using dogs on people who are peacefully protesting.” These scenes would “make America reflect” and make changes in “the right direction.”
This lesson is one example of the ways that some teachers have taken a more nuanced approach to teaching about King, the most famous American civil rights leader.
Since Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday in 1983, the civil rights activist has become a fixture in classrooms. But how he’s taught has largely remained unchanged over the last 40 years, according to LaGarrett King, Director of the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education at the University of Buffalo. State standards for history usually frame the civil rights leader as “the embodiment” of the civil rights movement, with his crowning achievements being the 1963 March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech, along with his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” penned after leading a demonstration against the city’s orders.
Over the last two years, there’s been a heightened awareness of how Black history is taught. In the last year, Education Week reports that 17 states have passed laws or taken other steps to limit how the history of racism is taught in K-12 schools or banned critical race theory (which is not taught in K-12 schools). Despite this climate, King is still considered “a safe person to teach,” according to King, the University of Buffalo scholar.
“Teachers still teach him as a moderate and passive,” he says. “Overall society hasn’t caught up to understand King’s nuances—particularly his thoughts around war and thoughts around poverty.”
New technology is also bringing Martin Luther King’s words to life in new ways. A virtual reality experience produced by TIME Studios and Meta relates the “I Have a Dream” speech to modern-day issues like voting rights. One chilling experience juxtaposes King’s words on police brutality with an interactive that puts users in the position of a being Black person at a traffic stop.
Teachers are also trying to make King relevant to their students by linking him to their local communities whenever possible. Every year around Election Day, Anna O’Brien, 55, a middle school teacher in Fort Mill, S.C., outside Charlotte, plays a speech on voting rights that King delivered in the state in 1966. Emmett Glynn, 52, a high school teacher in the Baton Rouge, La., area explains how King researched the city’s successful bus boycott, which took place almost three years before the one King led in Montgomery, Ala.
Even when it comes to students of young ages, teachers aren’t shying away from difficult conversations about the history of racism in America.
“They’ve heard the words white supremacy, they’ve talked about this before,” Turquoise LeJeune Parker, 35, an elementary school teacher in Durham, N.C., says of her students.
In Killeen, Texas, Lapernee Kea, 33, recalls how last year, as part of a day devoted to teaching King during Black History Month in February, she explained what racism is to her second-grade classroom by describing white people in King’s lifetime as “bullies.” She showed how people were treated differently because of their skin color by pointing to the three white kids in the predominantly minority class and explaining that 60-plus years ago, the rest of the students wouldn’t have had the same rights—and that injustice is what motivated King’s activism.
“He would just walk peacefully, and here comes the loudest, big bully, and just because they don’t like him from the way that he looks,” Kea explains. She taught King’s resilience by saying, “He gets picked on, but at the end of the day, he’s still accomplished something,” meaning that his activism led to landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
Parker, in Durham, explains to her elementary school students that when white people hail King as a promoter of nonviolence, it’s often a loaded term. “Kids and adults think that when Dr. King said nonviolence, he meant that he was going to be submissive to whatever white folks thought needed to happen, like he wasn’t going to push back on anything. He was just going to accept whatever was given to him, or he was not going to challenge what they said,” she says.
Parker says it’s important to teach about Martin Luther King Jr. all-year round and laments that discussions about him in many classrooms mostly happen around Martin Luther KIng Jr. holiday weekend. “Sometimes I really don’t want to even talk about Dr. King on this holiday,” lamenting that it’s become a time when white people frequently quote King because ”they want to be seen as inclusive or anti-racist.”
As a result, many teachers aim to go beyond the King quotes that circulate on social media. Ridgeway says the biggest takeaway about the civil rights activist that she wants students to learn from her class is that “what is pushed out to the mainstream is only half of who he was.” She also makes clear that America would be “a very different place if people like Martin Luther King did not risk their lives to make America better, to make it live up to the Constitution.”
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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at firstname.lastname@example.org