Teaching About King’s Radical Approach to Social Justice

While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work is often sugarcoated, it’s important to teach that King championed economic justice and taught Black self-love while also pushing back against neutrality, imperialism and systemic racism.
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In classrooms every year around this time—and again during Black History Month—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is celebrated for his fight for civil rights. While there are numerous opportunities to learn about King’s social justice campaigns beyond the “I Have a Dream” speech, some educators still get stuck with a sanitized narrative of his activism.  

In addition to his pleas for love and equality, King also called out discriminatory policies in an effort to bring forth economic justice, spoke out against war and supported Nelson Mandela’s fight to end apartheid in South Africa. As we honor his nonviolent fight against injustice in the United States, we cannot erase his commitment to upend systemic racism and white supremacy everywhere. 

If students analyze King’s speeches and life’s work more carefully, they’ll see that he promoted a more radical approach to justice—not one that asks citizens to be neutral on racism or one that merely offers comfort. 

For example, he talked about disrupting the status quo and chastised white moderates in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” 

He also empathized with people who did not emulate his concept of nonviolent resistance. During a speech titled “The Other America” at a Michigan high school in 1968, he described rioting as “the language of the unheard”:

But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? ... It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

It’s important to go beyond the feel-good narratives when teaching about King and the civil rights movement. To provide students with a fuller and more accurate account of his activism, you can start with these three ways King radically advocated for social justice.

Three Radical Moments of Dr. King

1. In the lead-up to his Poor People’s Campaign, not long before his assassination, King told Black people to go to Washington “to get our check.” Here, King gives a rebuttal to the “bootstrap” theory that suggests that all hard work is rewarded with success. He explains that economic disparities worsened when the federal government provided land and subsidies to poor white people but ignored Black citizens.

2. The Black Is Beautiful Movement was on the rise at the time King made this speech, which includes messages about self-love. As King urged Black people to seek their own liberation, he talked about Blackness and urged them to proclaim “Yes, I’m Black. I’m proud of it. I’m Black and beautiful.”

3. On the day before his assassination, King made the rousing speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” at Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. (Read the full text here.) He’d returned to Memphis to support the Sanitation Workers’ Strike. Here, he recounted the threats against his life while vowing to continue championing labor rights. But what’s often overlooked in this speech is his reminding Black citizens to support Black-owned businesses and boycott those that don’t acknowledge their humanity. He calls out specific large companies and banks in Memphis because of their discriminatory hiring policies:

And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy … Wonder Bread. …Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. … We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies, and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike.

King’s constant critique of government and people who remained neutral during social justice campaigns allows students to see that the civil rights movement was a complicated and nonlinear journey. As with all history, it’s vital that we teach youth to examine the fullness of his life’s work.  

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.

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