In 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described the field of education as a battleground in the freedom struggle.
“It was not fortuitous that education became embroiled in this conflict,” King said as he accepted the John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers. “Education is one of the vital tools the Negro needs in order to advance. And yet it has been denied him by devises of segregation and manipulations with quality.”
More than five decades after his assassination, King is widely heralded and taught about in schools as an important and beloved civil rights hero. Indeed, King’s modern approval rating is above 90%, and the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday included tributes to King from most organizations and public officials. But in 1968, the year King was killed, a Harris poll found that 75% of Americans disapproved of his views and advocacy — up from 50% in 1963.
Many advocates and historians attribute that faltering public approval to King’s pursuit of more expansive and aggressive socioeconomic and political policies in the last years of his life. Such work, advocates and King’s family say, is often not included in public tributes and school lessons.
“We must study him beyond the end of ‘I Have a Dream,’” said Bernice King, King’s daughter and the CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, on Twitter Monday. “And that’s taken out of context, too.”
This year, MLK Day came after Republican legislators across the country introduced, and sometimes passed, legislation last year to limit the use of critical race theory in schools. CRT is an academic concept more than 40 years old that has been widely criticized and incorrectly or vaguely defined by some vocal conservatives. A core tenet of the concept is that racism, though a social construct, is embedded in legal systems and policies — including America’s.
In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers passed a bill ultimately vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper that would’ve limited how teachers could discuss race and history in the classroom. As was the case in many other states, CRT was not explicitly mentioned in the N.C. bill, but included in discussions by lawmakers.
The introduction of the bill followed a larger statewide debate on how to teach history, including the passage of new social study standards last year and Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s creation of a task force in March to collect complaints from parents, students and teachers in public schools statewide about classroom “indoctrination” — including “pseudo-science social justice initiatives like the ‘1619 Project’ and ‘Critical Race Theory,’” which Robinson said teach people that “the systems of our Republic and the history of our great American experiment are shameful.”
The 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones as on ongoing initiative from The New York Times, explored the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery and won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. The project marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. Many historians and educators have crafted lessons and curriculum to teach about 1619 since the project’s August 2020 publication — a move many Republicans have opposed.
King himself frequently mentioned the year 1619 as a pivotal moment in American history; his “I Have a Dream” speech during the historic march for jobs and freedom at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was all about the continuation of racism in the United States beyond the end of slavery.
On Monday, several state Republicans who’d previously supported anti-1619 bills wrote tributes to King. This included U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who co-sponsored a bill last summer to prohibit elementary and secondary schools nationwide from using federal funds to teach the 1619 project, and representatives Ted Budd and Dan Bishop, who co-sponsored a companion bill introduced in the U.S. House.
Some on social media criticized the lawmakers and urged them to honor King by protecting voting rights; they also called attention to the state’s contested political maps and attempt to change how schools teach history.
On Monday, Republican N.C. Superintendent Catherine Truitt also posted a tribute to King on Twitter that received backlash from some educators.
“Today, we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” she wrote, adding a quote from King. “’The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”
Truitt previously fought against the inclusion of phrases like “systemic racism,” “systemic discrimination” and “gender identity” in the state’s social studies standards last year, and expressed opposition to CRT.
“As your superintendent, I will continue to do everything I can to stop CRT and eradicate it from classrooms,” Truitt said last summer. “Republicans in N.C. are united on this.”
North Carolina’s new social studies standards, implemented in fall 2021, include teaching students about the civil rights movement — by talking about how the experiences and achievements of minorities contribute to the protection of individual rights in high school American History, for example, or in 1st grade, explaining why national holidays such as MLK Day are celebrated.
In light of recent curriculum bills, teaching such social studies standards could lead to confusion and challenges for districts, CCS’s Amanda Moran previously told the News + Record.
For example, in 3rd grade, students learn about the lasting impact historical events have on local communities and must demonstrate how the event continues to affect that community — with history like the Civil War, 1898 Wilmington Massacre and Greensboro Sit-ins. In light of pushback to the 1619 project, which explores the legacy of slavery today, such an educational objective could create challenges for teachers, particularly if new legislation is introduced.
Chatham Central history teacher Amy King previously told the News + Record teaching “hard history” is an important part of learning accurate history. King emphasized her lessons — on lynchings, segregation or exclusionary immigration laws — rely on facts and primary documents, not political opinions or agendas.
Primary documents mentioned by Amy King could include diaries, letters, photographs or speeches created from the time of study — speeches or letters given by Dr. King in full, for example, rather than short snippets or inspirational quotes.
“We teach about politics, all throughout history. But we don’t teach students how to think, we teach them to think,” Amy King said. “We teach them to think about these complex issues, and to see that many of these complex issues have long stories behind them. We want them to recognize those stories, to be informed and for that to help them make informed choices and decisions.”
Dr. King himself stressed the importance of education to teach people “to think intensively and to think critically.”
Bernice King joined many advocates Monday in asking people to educate themselves on what her father really said and taught.
“Tomorrow, there will be people tweeting about my father and MLK Day who are complicit in, complacent about and/or a part of cultivating some form of injustice,” she tweeted Sunday. “... Let’s channel our love-centered energy into defeating injustice, living and speaking truth (and not just to power), and working for justice, about which my father said: ‘Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.’”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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