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50 Years Later: What Teachers Need to Remember About Dr. King’s Legacy

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
“I’ve Been to theMountaintop“| Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr|April 3rd, 1968

Exactly 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King gave an impromptu somber speech in Memphis’ Mason Temple. He wasn’t intended to speak but was asked at the last minute to galvanize the crowd, Dr. King, with the shutters banging from the wind and thunder from a storm wreaking havoc outside, he gave his final speech before being murdered the next day outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel. Little people know that Dr. King was in town to help the city’s sanitation workers organize a march after two black sanitation workers were crushed by garbage compactors on February 1, 1968, solidifying his focus on economic disparity with the Poor People’s Campaign.
For many years, I called Memphis, TN my home and I walked the halls of the Civil Rights Museum- formerly known as the Lorraine Hotel- reading the documents from the Civil Rights Museum, listening to Dr. King’s speeches, and marveling at how the museum keeps Dr. King’s message alive. During my time in the city, I came to understand the conditions of the city in 1968 that made it ‘ground zero’ to protest against low wages, horrible working conditions, and discrimination. I also could see first hand the effect of Dr. King’s murder had on the city and I’m not talking about the beautiful museum built in honor of civil rights, but of the unintended consequences of a city so divided that you could cut the racial tension in the air.
So every year through my literature class, I  made sure to interweave Dr. King’s Speeches throughout our units. To bring his legacy alive even further, we always took trips not only to the Civil Rights Museum but to other landmarks around the city where Dr. King traveled. Despite my work in my classes, I was always amazed at just how little my students knew about the historical happenings in their city during the 1960s and also how little things had changed.
To make matters worse, throughout my tenure as an educator, I’ve watched Dr. King’s message become so sanitized that people have attempted to reduce his entire legacy to a message of kindness Click To Tweet
To make matters worse, throughout my tenure as an educator,  I’ve watched Dr. King’s message become so sanitized that people have attempted to reduce his entire legacy to a message of kindness. Of course, Dr. King wanted everyone to be kind to one another, but to reduce his message to as simple as ‘be kind’ loses the intensity of the bloody battles he endured.  A message as simple as of  ‘be kind’ is softspoken and quiet to the injustices of bigotry, violence, and outright racism we see today occurring not only with students but also against teachers.  A message of ‘just be kind’   is one that is more worried about how we’ll be viewed as speaking than speaking up boldly against all injustice regardless of the consequences.
As educators, we have the responsibility to make sure that if we are bold enough to use Dr. King’s words as bridge builders in lessons or memes on Instagram, then we are bold enough to keep his legacy alive with our actions of making sure our classrooms are vessels for not only an anti-racist education but for justice for all students.
To really understand how to use Dr. King’s message as today, we must examine some of the truths that Dr. King firmly believed in throughout his career and how we can use these to engage in his work 50 years later:
Dr. King engaged in the power of a protest- which included blocking traffic, not spending money where people were not respected- even if half of the country did not agree with him at the time. Even though King believed in the power of nonviolence protest, he also understood that riots “are the language of the unheard“. So as vessels of hope in classrooms, we cannot revere Dr. King but lament about why people across our country are protesting-including our fellow teachers. Instead, seek to understand and be the first on the protest lines when not only our livelihoods but basic humanity is threatened. As we’ve seen in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma and other states, teachers are protesting economic disparity with teachers earning ‘pennies on the dollar’ compared to other professions with the same education level and workload. Dr. King would support this work.
Dr. King engaged in ANTI-RACIST work every day that he was on Earth until the moment he was murdered. In his famous speech, Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King called out people who refused to support this work and instead focused on order instead of justice. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to engage in anti-racist work every single day whether we’re in the classroom or at home posting in a Facebook group. Teachers cannot lead one life at school and go home and operate a white supremacist podcast called “Unapologetic”. In addition, it’s not just good enough that we’re anti-racist, but we have to hold other teachers accountable for the work also.
Dr. King believed in fighting for the underdog in society. In his later work with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 Dr. King ultimately died for his work in making sure there was economic justice for poor people. So Dr. King would be actively fighting to make sure that all of our students have access to an education that would give them economic freedom. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to not get caught up in what looks “pretty” but to fight for school funding and equity to make sure that our most vulnerable students are protected. Speaking in 1967, Dr. King said,“I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.”

Dr. King was a revolutionary that through his work and others, changed the cultural landscape of America. As educators, we must be true to what we say on paper- if we want to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive and meaningful, it’s critical for us to understand not only his complexity but how fifty years later many of us in public schools across America are fighting for the same thing- justice for all.

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