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Reflecting on Dr. King’s Legacy

DEI Friday, 21 Jan 2022

Like many, I have been reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week. Emerging from my years as an American history teacher, I am struck by how we reduce complex, multi-dimensional, and impactful historical figures–human beings who live with purpose and determination, and who sacrifice all for the good of others–to one-dimensional icons whose place in history is secured with statues and holidays, while the true breadth of their work is diminished into a single, oversimplified headline. I see this with Dr. King’s legacy.

While Martin Luther King was committed to achieving racial justice and social justice for all through non-violent means, today there is a tendency to reduce his legacy to that of a Man of Peace, a timeless and benign model of paternal patience, forbearance, and tolerance, as if he was called spiritually to accept the status quo for Black America rather than disrupt dominant power structures and inequitable
norms through intentional, targeted, and productive conflict.

Although Dr. King was a true man of peace, he was also the leader of relentless efforts to demand racial justice from communities, businesses, and governments through punishing economic boycotts; disruptive and galvanizing rallies and protests; persuasive essays and speeches that became works of literature; inspirational calls to action via radio and television; voter registration campaigns and the recruitment of allies through churches, temples, mosques, colleges, and other organizations; and strong, skillful political lobbying, from small-town mayoral offices and state capitols to the oval office. He worked aggressively, by any means necessary sans violence, to transform American culture and society into something more inclusive and just for everyone.

As Bernice King, his youngest child–just five years old when her father was assassinated and today the CEO of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change–tweeted this week, “Kindness matters but kindness does not equal justice. Civility counts but civility is not the humane response to injustice, justice is. Love is essential but love is not a passive, weeping bystander. Love puts in work.”

Despite Dr. King’s incredible capacity for love, he was attacked verbally and physically whenever he appeared in predominantly white neighborhoods in Chicago, and at the time the majority of Americans, especially many white Americans, considered him a threat to peace and law and order, a danger to their communities, and an agent of national disunity. He was arrested thirty times during his thirty-nine years on this earth. And in 2022, we can see alive in America some of these same attitudes toward contemporary activists for racial justice and practitioners of the same civil disobedience practiced by Dr. King.

It is critical to remember these elements of Dr. King’s story. As important as his influential legacy of non-violence remains, Martin Luther King challenged us, and continues to challenge us today, regardless of our identities, to labor to change the status quo, to become more aware of our own norms, values, attitudes, and beliefs, and to recognize and interrogate the role white supremacy has played and continues to play in American society.

Becoming Aware, Nurturing Curiosity

An important part of this interrogation is the process of developing self-awareness, of understanding who we are as individuals and what our lens is (and what our potential blind spots might be), vital to growing cultural competence. Knowing that we have our own lenses through which we experience the world (based on our unique identities) enables us to be curious about and open to understanding the lenses of others, especially those with whom we don’t share common identities. Cultural competence is a skill today’s students will need for connection, well-being, and success in high school, college, and the world beyond school. This is one way Dr. King’s legacy impacts education today, and why schools like NPES continue to develop opportunities for all students to acquire these essential skills.

A Resource for Creating a More Inclusive Community

A resource that helps me interrogate my own assumptions, values, and habits is this chart compiled by Debby Irving that shows how my European roots inform how I see, experience, and interact with the world. I strive to incorporate the expansive values in the right-hand column as much as I can, knowing I can be more inclusive and equitable in my work with students, families, and employees if I do so. I share this list with you in the event you find it useful, too. I am not ashamed of the habits and values I’ve inherited from my ancestors and upbringing (they shaped me) but I understand and accept that as the dominant norms for centuries in America, they have given me unearned advantages while disadvantaging others unjustly. I have no right to impose them on others, and the more I integrate multicultural, inclusive habits and values into my own life and work, the stronger our community will be for all. It is hard, humbling work, and I fail at it in some way everyday. But to me, this is the work Dr. King challenges us to undertake as we strive together to change a status quo of inequity and injustice, for ourselves and for our children.