By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
With the celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and work it is a good time to take a deeper look at his legacy. The celebrations of Martin Luther King usually consist of an emphasis on his most popular speeches, his marches and also his death. Although, popular tributes to King are of the utmost importance, they fail to take an in-depth analysis of his more complex and sophisticated ideas. When one delves deep into the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, one discovers that he talked a lot about many democratic principles such as justice, freedom, equality, fairness and creating what he called the “beloved community.” These principles can apply to societal challenges today. This article offers resources that can help students, the general public, teachers and scholars take a more in-depth look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It provides some information and resources outside of mainstream portrayals of Dr. King that may be useful tools in addressing some of the social and political challenges in which we find ourselves today.
King Was Not Always Popular
Dr. King was vilified, harassed and eventually murdered because his ideas challenged the status quo and the established order. Ironically, many people that celebrate Dr. King in our time would not have supported him when he was living and would have considered him to be a radical. Martin was a man of great integrity, who was very kind and selfless as well. However, his unpopularity came because he courageously spoke out and pushed against the establishment. Stephen and Paul Kendrick in an April 3, 2018 Washington Post Op Ed article wrote “In our long effort to moderate King, to make him safe, we have forgotten how unpopular he had become by 1968. In his last years, King was harassed, dismissed and often saddened. These years after Selma are often dealt with in a narrative rush toward martyrdom, highlighting his weariness. But what is missed is his resilience under despair. It was when his plans faltered under duress that something essential emerged. The final period of King’s life may be exactly what we need to recall, bringing lessons from that time of turmoil to our time of disillusion.” Right up unto the day that he died, King had many critics, but after he was killed people celebrated and praised him. Perhaps this is because many people are not always willing to make sacrifices, but when the time comes for accolades there are no shortage of supporters.
- How might Dr. King’s ideas about equality and moral law be applied to some of the sociopolitical challenges we see in our time?
Most Americans Didn’t Approve of Martin Luther King Jr. Before His Death, Polls Show
King was unpopular and demoralized before he died. He pressed on anyway
Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Addresses Some of His Critics
Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail is a good source too add to the discussion about the many critics he had. Martin chose to go into the ministry after first considering being a medical doctor or lawyer. In his writings, he states that the church and his role as a minister gave him the best resources and platform to answer “an inner urge to serve humanity.” Thus, the opinions of his fellow ministers (He directs the letter to his “fellow clergymen”) was very important to him. Apparently in King’s day many of the ministers were very critical of the work he had been doing. He starts off stating “while confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities unwise and untimely.” He goes on to say that “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” As evident in this quote, one can clearly note that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not always viewed as the kindly, soft, superhero in which society views him today. As the letter also indicates, some of the disapproval came from his colleagues in the ministry. To be fair, Martin enjoyed immense popularity among many people, but he had just as many enemies as he had admirers, if not more.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
King’s Non-Violence Stance Was Not Always so Certain
One of the principles King is most noted for is his practice of nonviolent resistance. However, it is not common knowledge that he did not start out this way early in his work. But, through much of the literature he read and those who mentored him he moved in that direction. His advisers showed him an alternative to violence and how nonviolent resistance can act as a powerful tool. The goal was not to humiliate one’s opponent but to win them over as a friend. He took to the idea also because of his religious beliefs as a Christian and a Baptist minister. Two of King’s primary advisers were Christian theologian Howard Thurman and white activists Harris Wofford, from the Christian pacifist tradition. Another one of King’s key mentors was veteran African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who helped coach and train him in strategies of non-violent resistance. Both Wofford and Rustin both studied Gandhi’s teachings and exposed King to his philosophies. In King’s early activism in the 1950’s he rarely used the term “nonviolence” and knew very little about Gandhi’s work. Surprisingly, King did not always subscribe to nonviolence and early on believed in self-defense. King had even purchased firearms to protect his family from attackers in his home. Later in his activism he strongly and publicly denounced the personal use of guns, however Dr. King always had conflicted views of self-defense. Even though he spoke out against self-defense, many of his associates carried fire arms to protect him. So perhaps he was influenced by the realities of his day and black activist who unapologetically advocated for the use of violence if necessary.
Dr. King’s Nonviolence Stance
Deeper Concepts in King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” Often Missed
In the media and at MLK events when one hears excerpts from King’s most popular speech entitled “I have a Dream”, it is heard starting from the climax toward the end of the speech that repeats “I have a dream.” We hear King begin this segment with the lines “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Even though these words are electrifying and speak of high moral ideals, people miss equally deep and powerful concepts discussed earlier in the speech. For example, in an earlier part of the speech Dr. King states: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” Even though these words were spoken in 1963 it applies to our time period as if it were written for today. There has long been the popular notion that America has moved well past the injustices and racial prejudices of the Civil Rights era, however with the rise of hate groups, white supremacy and racial rhetoric in our society, it seems that the nation has regressed and given way again to racial divisions on a wide scale. Indeed, the line “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood” can be applied to today as our country becomes more and more divided along racial lines, Martin’s “I Have a Dream Speech” speech reminds us that racial injustice can act as quicksand that can impede progress in our land; it can cause us to be stuck. But King’s legacy reminds us to lift up our nation toward a more just society.
Original “I Have Dream” Transcript
• What progress has been made in terms of racial reconciliation sense Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time?
• How much progress have we really made in terms of race relations and equality since the Civil Rights era?
• Are there incidents, events or attitudes in today’s society that remind us of the times in which Dr. King lived? If so, what are they?
• Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked a good deal about race, but he also talked about economic injustice, do you think we have made much progress in terms of economic equality?
• If Martin were living today how would he feel about society? What kinds of things might he be saying?
Below are a number of lesson plans and resources for teachers and students that offer a more in-depth study of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades K-5
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades 6-8
Classroom Resources for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Grades 9-12
Lesson Plans & Teacher Guides
Sermons and Speech Transcripts
The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Sermon Delivered at Friendship Baptist Church
“Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church
“But If Not” – A Sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool” (Sermon) Martin Luther King Jr.
Sermons/Speeches- Audiovisual Resources
Our God Is Marching On! (March 25, 1965)
MLK: Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence
Martin Luther King, Jr., American Dream
Martin Luther King – But if Not – Full Sermon
Martin Luther King’s Last Speech: “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”
Conclusion of “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” Speech
Martin Luther King, Jr., “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?”
Martin Luther King “If I had Sneezed”
Other Audiovisual Resources
Mahalia Jackson singing & Martin Luther King Jr preaching at Church
Martin Luther King, Jr. – Minister & Civil Rights Activist
The Greatest MLK Speeches You Never Heard
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. was stabbed by a deranged woman. At 29, he almost died.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King Is Slain in Memphis; A White Is Suspected; Johnson Urges Calm
The story of Marten Luther King Jr. is such an important topic in school. Yet this is also the topic that is just skimmed over for his accolades and his accomplishments. There is little taught about the struggle that MLK felt in his day. This is a man that was a minister, and all he wanted to do was help all people. His pursuit to create a just society was not an easy road but he persevered, and progress has been made. Schools today could benefit from this lesson for two reasons. The first is the most obvious, and most taught today the social injustice and that it is not okay. The second lesson that is missed when you don’t take a deeper look at MLK’s life is his struggle and his perseverance over these struggles to promote change. This is a powerful lesson for students to learn so they see that struggles are needed in life to make room for the change in our lives. I am grateful that this article gave me a deeper understanding of MLK’s life and lessons we can learn from. I will be using his struggle as an example to my students not to back down from change, but to overcome it.
wow, this was a good article. There was so much to learn about MLK in this article. admittedly I have very little knowledge of MLK. I only knew what they taught us in school. This was not much though. this is just like what your article talks about. I until today had no idea that MLK was not always a non-violence believer. I also did not know that his speech has never really been fully grasped by readers. and that is not a just society for blacks but a just society for all mankind. This struck me because it is true we all need to stick together and help our brothers and sisters undergod to create a better future. If we all worked together and ended the hate we could accomplish so much more as a human race. I hope we all can learn this message one day.
This article was very thought provoking because it covered information that is not always discussed when you learn about Martin Luther King Jr., and it often overlooked. Looking back in school, I remember learning about how impactful MLK Jr. was and how his “I Have A Dream” speech was revolutionary, but nothing close to this. As I grow older, I continue to find myself finding out new information about his legacy and life, and I want to instill these concepts into my own classroom.
Also, I appreciate the amount of resources you gave us at the end of the article, including various lesson plans that are divided by grade level and discussion questions to instill higher order questions that can start a great discussion within a middle school classroom. It will be an extremely helpful when it comes time to teaching my students about the life and impact of MLK Jr. It gives me confidence I am able to give my students an opportunity to dig deeper into who he is and what his life entailed beyond the common concepts that are spoken about that I was not afforded during my own middle school classroom.
The most impactful part of this article would have the be the section on “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because up until recently, I never knew this occurred, nor that he had a mugshot that told a major part of his civil rights journey. I really enjoy that, and although back then he was often criticized for what he was doing, it only made what he did more powerful and awe provoking.
I thought this article was extremely interesting. This article made me reflect on all the years I was in school and how many times I was “taught” about the work of Martin Luther King Jr and how it barely scratched the surface. There was so much in this article that I never knew about Dr. King. The only think I distinctly remember learning was the last minute of his “I have a Dream” speech. While it is very important, there is so much more that could have been taught that would have given me a better insight on the legacy of Dr. King. One quote that really stuck out to me from Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail was, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I think that this is still relevant in todays world and hope that there is a shift toward teaching more than just the surface level work of Dr. King because there is so much that we as a society can learn from him.
I think its really interesting how you touched in how Dr King wasn’t always thought of like he is today. Also I really liked how you went so in depth, a lot more than my past teachers have, It seems like always focused just on the one day a year. I feel like Dr. King would still be upset with how we are today, maybe not for the exact reasons, while some still apply but just how we have grown as a society.
I think that it is so important for people to know that Dr. King wasn’t always viewed as a heroic person like he is today. But in reality there are people that still despise Dr. King and unfortunately they are part of the caucasian race. I feel that if Dr. King was still alive today that people would still view him negatively. Although he tried to incorporate a good thing for the African race, as well as, create equality, people viewed him as powerful and demanding which is why I feel that people viewed him so negatively. I think as a teacher it is very important for me to incorporate and view Dr. King as a heroic man who pushed equality among black and whites, and teach children the importance of equality and Dr. King’s efforts.
If Dr. Martin Luther King lived in our society today I think he was be very disappointed. Dr. King put in so much effort and even his life into fixing the society there once was and ending segregation. He did the work of getting everyone to love each other no matter what color you are. I feel like in a way, we are slowly starting to go back to that. No, there’s not segregation laws saying blacks cannot go into schools, stores, churches, etc., but there are many people in this world today that show racism and we can’t all be kind to one another. If Dr. King was here today I think he would give another speech saying everyone needs to get their act together. Sure, we might all have different color skin, but that does’t change us from being human, from having a heart, or not being able to be kind to one another. We are all capable of being kind, so lets do it and lets all get along.
very well written article. This man’s life was incredible but different, he was mostly a good man and did a lot of great things dispite the few negative things he has participated in.
This article is good. I have heard and talked about King but never looked deeply into his life. I have seen and read a lot of really good articles about him. On the other hand I have heard that he was not an all around great man. I’ve heard he was adulterous and was not always the “I have a dream” man. What are your thoughts on the other side of things that King was part of that a lot of people look past because of his greatness?
As early as February 20, 2019, Senator and Presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren “blamed generations of discrimination for black families earning far less than white households” (NY Times). This article goes on to talk about Democratic policy makers who are openly talking about reparations and policy changes that brings true equality through opportunities. It is clear that the country is yet, still, grappling with the same issues that Dr. King addressed decades ago. On reflection, it seems Dr. King began the work and through time has gotten us moving forward on racial equality, and there is more work to be done. Hopefully, soon, another leader and champion will become apparent. Sooner rather than later, especially with the current U.S. administration trying to turn equality inside out.
Dr. Childs’ article helps us to reflect on the real challenges Dr. King faced, perhaps bringing down the idealized persona we celebrate today. Surely Dr. King grappled with his own day to day emotions, and remaining clear on his convictions and beliefs in terms of commitment and sacrifice.