What I want my daughters to understand about Dr. King’s legacy

James Cobb writes, “According to an early 1968 Harris Poll, the man whose half-century of martyrdom we celebrate this week died with a public disapproval rating of nearly 75 percent, a figure shocking in its own day and still striking even in today’s highly polarized political climate.” How is it possible that the man we revere today, was so reviled in his day?

Dr. King was much more radical than mainstream Americans realize, particularly later in life in his public statements and actions. Today we reduce his activism to wanting kids to hold hands and play together. But I believe Dr. King was after both systems and individual change, and it’s our job as parents to help our children understand his full legacy. One good way to do that is by simply re-reading (or re-watching) Dr. King’s full speech to understand the major themes of his life’s work and the entire purpose of the Civil Right’s movement. Make it an activity you do together, one that leaves room for discussion afterwards. Remember, it’s not about having all the answers, it’s about continuing the dialogue.

Speaking of dialogue, Dr. King began his speech at the March on Washington by reviewing the previous 100 years since emancipation.

But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly 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. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.

Right there, in the first few lines you’ve got history, economic inequality, racism, all the big reasons for why we find ourselves in this current mess in the first place. Guess where he didn’t learn any of these things by the way? (Not in a textbook that’s for sure. For many black and indigenous folks, their lived experiences already confirm everything they need to know about our history. Dr. King was also a graduate of a historically black college, Morehouse, where you can best bet he learned America’s history in totality).

Bonus points, ask your kids if they can think of anything important that happened in race relations in our country between 1863 (Emancipation Proclamation) and 1963 (March on Washington). Most adults actually can’t tell you either. According to Nikole Hannah-Jones, architect of the 1619 project, “two-thirds of Americans believe that the legacy of slavery still affects our society today. They can see and feel the truth of this fact- they just haven’t learned a history that helps them understand how and why.” What a shame. Someone should really do something about that…

But I digress. Back to the speech, my favorite part, and the one most missed by mainstream America today is King’s organizing point: we are here to cash a check. America owes us something, for all it has taken from us. King says,

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, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

What I love about this speech is that Dr. King is speaking to both Americas, Black America and white America. Dr. King goes on to encourage Black America, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” While many leaders may have disagreed with his tactics, Dr. King knew that we couldn’t allow the clear racism and inequity we’re confronted with to rob us of our own black joy and peace. I struggle with this myself as do many Black Americans, walking the fine line between awareness that shapes change and constant rage that only consumes yourself.

For white America, Dr. King warns, don’t talk to us about patience and delay. He speaks of the fierce urgency of now, saying:

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

If anything, Dr. King’s speech in Washington on that day was a call to action. One that we still have plenty of work to do. I fear that we have white-washed Dr. King’s legacy. Most people when they think of Dr. King, immediately what comes to mind is the end to his speech at the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. We focus on the dream, as if the work necessary to arrive at the dream has occurred. But why? Why have we instead chosen to idealize the dreamer, rather than interrogating and pursuing the dream? The short answer is that it’s safer and easier to protect the status quo than to work to change it. Dr. King’s dream requires an honest look in the mirror and takes a complicated path (one that he spells out in his famous speech). Now, nearly 50 years later, I wonder do we have what it takes?


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