Every year on the third Monday in January, Americans commemorate the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And every year, Americans are often subjected to wildly inaccurate misrepresentations of Dr. King’s words and work, particularly by politicians working to directly undermine many of the causes he lost his life by promoting, but also by teachers, parents, and otherwise well-meaning folks who’ve only been taught watered-down versions of Dr. King works. That said, if we as a nation and as parents care about realizing his vision of equality, there are certain things parents need to know about Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to pass these beliefs down to their children.
Far from being the hollow emblem of “tolerance” many people know him as today, Dr. King described himself as “more socialistic in [his] economic theory than capitalistic.” He was committed to building a fundamentally different kind of society than the one we live in, a commitment that frightened many political leaders and ordinary people at the time. Part of why the feel-good, mythical image of Dr. King is such a tempting distraction is because, for most Americans, it's easy to support the idea of little black boys and girls playing with little white boys and girls. It's harder to recognize the fact that no matter how well they play together, those boys and girls will have radically different freedoms and opportunities in life, so long as we allow the rest of the society to remain fundamentally unequal.
It's worth noting that Dr. King himself was not a perfect person, which is why it's also important to recognize that he isn't and shouldn't be held up as the only or most important leader of the Civil Rights Movement. A classic example of the need for an intersectional understanding of all social issues, King wasn't nearly as enlightened about gender and sexuality as he was about racial and economic issues. Like many people at the time, he thought homosexuality was a "bad habit," rather than one of many perfectly normal expressions of human sexuality. Also, like a lot of his peers at the time, he didn't see the importance of sharing leadership opportunities with women.
But despite his shortcomings, King still contributed some of the most significant analyses of economic and racial inequality Americans have ever encountered — ones which still ring very true today. He also helped develop practical theories of nonviolent resistance that were and continue to be important tools for achieving social, political, and economic equality for people of all kinds. Perhaps that's one of the most important lessons we can take from his life: a person doesn't need to be perfect in order to make a significant, positive difference in the world.
As parents who want to raise ethical kids in a deeply flawed society, we need to understand the reality of leaders and heroes like Dr. King. It's a dangerous lie to teach children he only had the ideas most people agree on now (like being friendly to people of different races), while leaving out the bigger picture of his advocacy for economic justice and political equality, which are crucial parts of ensuring that all people really can live together as brothers and sisters. If we and our kids are going to help realize The Dream we’ve all heard so much about, we need to understand the following:
Dr. King Was An Ordinary Man
Dr. King was an ordinary human being, not a superhero. Like all of us, he made mistakes, and he didn’t always live up to his own ideals. Far from a reason to devalue his impact, it should remind us that despite our flaws, we all have the potential to be the leaders we've been waiting for, and we all have the capacity to make a difference.
Dr. King Advocated Nonviolence, Not Passivity
Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that violence only begets violence. However, his support of peaceful protest still involved protest. He didn't stop marching or boycotting or challenging a racist status quo, despite the discomfort they caused at the time. Instead, he recognized that nonviolence doesn’t mean “keeping quiet about injustice so people will like you.” King didn't “agree to disagree” over political issues affecting his and others’ lives. He organized, wrote, and spoke out, despite threats to his safety (and eventually, his life).
He Supported And Engaged In Disruptive Protest
Dr. King led and supported marches that shut down bridges and freeways, strikes, and boycotts that cost the targeted companies and authorities millions of dollars. And although he absolutely opposed rioting, he called on all good people to recognize — and end — the brutality and injustice that causes riots, rather than just condemning the riots themselves.
He Did More Than “Have A Dream”
Most folks know Dr. King by the few lines of his “I Have A Dream” speech, quoted over and over every year, and assume his work was solely about helping black and white people get along. That’s a huge oversimplification. He spent (and lost) his life organizing for full political and economic equality as well as social equality.
He Stood As Forcefully Against Economic Injustice As Racial Injustice
The march where King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and he was assassinated in Memphis while supporting striking sanitation workers in the area. That's because King strongly believed there is no social justice without economic justice. He advocated for the full eradication of poverty through policies like a guaranteed income, and believed
If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.
(Yes, he really said that. He wasn't playing around, folks.)
Dr. King Called Out White Moderates For Trying To Silence Black Protest...
Whenever people invoke Dr. King to denigrate contemporary civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter, they're engaging in precisely the sort of thinking King directly condemned in his writings, including in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." He said,
...I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
...And Drew A Clear Distinction Between A "Negative" Versus "Positive" Peace
Injustice always creates social conflict, whether people want to acknowledge that conflict or not. That's why King strongly rejected the idea of normalizing injustice by pretending things are OK when they aren't, for the sake a false concept of “order.” He believed in confronting problems so they could be solved, rather than pretending those problems didn't exist.
King Was Frequently Vilified In His Own Time, Including By Our Own Government
Though he was instrumental in the work that resulted in victories like the Voting Rights Act, that didn't preclude him from also being regarded as a potential threat by our own government. Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover particularly despised King, and like other activists, Dr. King was monitored by the FBI from the time of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott until his death. Throughout that time, the FBI engaged in covert operations to gather information they then tried to use to blackmail him into abandoning his life’s work, as well as discredit him with other government officials, the media, church leaders, and donors.
It's important to know this history because we need to understand (and help our kids understand) that the people running our government are just people, and people don't always do the right thing. We also need to understand for ourselves that being generally decent people trying to accomplish worthwhile goals doesn't necessarily protect us from being treated unfairly. That should give us a more realistic sense of the risks activists face, and make us more skeptical when we see public officials and law enforcement condemning and/or using violence against contemporary activists.
He Didn't Work Alone
No one person can accomplish anything significant on their own. Dr. King was a gifted, charismatic orator and leader, but he was far from the only significant figure whose work catalyzed the major social transformations resulting from this phase of the Civil Rights Movement. If you admire Dr. King, you should also know about Civil Rights thinkers, activists, and leaders like A. Philip Randolph, Rep. John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, and hundreds more.
We should also remember (and remind our kids about) those huge, often nameless crowds they helped mobilize, and the many more whose faces we never see in history books. All of those folks — ordinary people like us who found the strength to make countless small and significant personal, social, and financial sacrifices in order to show up for marches, strikes, boycotts and more — gave power to the better-known leaders’ ideas by answering their calls to action. Were it not for their actions and sacrifices, the words and work of people like Dr. King wouldn't matter.
His Work Remains Unfinished
The Civil Rights Movement of the middle 20 Century accomplished a lot, particularly in terms of passing laws that began to challenge segregation and discrimination. It also marked the beginning of social shifts that helped raise the status of people of color in American society. But it didn't eradicate the legacy of generations of violent land theft and enslavement, nor could it completely prevent the many public policies that let whiter and wealthier communities prosper at browner and poorer communities’ expense.
In his public stances on many issues, it's clear that Dr. King supported many causes people are still fighting for today, including a universal basic income, universal healthcare, strong unions, an end to police brutality, an end to militarism, and more. For parents who wish to carry on his legacy, it's not enough to just teach our kids to be nice to different kinds of people. That's a great place to start, but there's still plenty of work to be done to achieve full social, political, and economic justice, and it's on all of us to do it.