Episode 7, Season 3
You cannot teach the civil rights movement without talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it’s critical that students deconstruct the mythology surrounding the movement’s most iconic figure to learn about the man, not just the hero. The real Dr. King held beliefs that evolved over time. A complex man, he was part of a much larger movement—one that shaped him as much as he shaped it.
Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights MovementEdited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Own the book from the University of Wisconsin Press that inspired and informs season three of the Teaching Hard History podcast!
- Learning for Justice, Dr. King and the Movement (grades 3-5, 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice, Birmingham 1963: Primary Documents (grades 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice, I Have a Dream
- Learning for Justice, Letter From a Birmingham Jail
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Last year, shortly before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, my four-year-old daughter’s preschool teacher asked me to speak to her class about Dr. King. She wanted the children to learn about the civil rights icon in advance of the school’s annual MLK Day assembly.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I thought, "How nice." I also thought, "Ain’t no way in hell I’m doing that!"
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Four year olds make me nervous—you never know what they’re thinking, or what they might ask. Don’t get me wrong, preschoolers need to learn about Dr. King; they just don’t need to learn about him from me.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: My reluctance must’ve been obvious, because A’laila’s teacher tried to ease my anxiety. She explained how the children already knew that Dr. King had died. Except they thought that he had been killed by a dragon. You know, because Kings fight dragons, and sometimes the dragons win. That little tidbit of information was supposed to help. "You can start anywhere," she said. But I was thinking, "Wait. Now I have to explain away dragons too?" Of course, I agreed to do it anyway.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: My approach was simple. I talked about Dr. King growing up. I explained what life was like for young Martin in the segregated South—the things he could not do simply because he was Black. And I asked the students if they thought separate and unequal was fair? They didn’t. So I explained how racial discrimination made young Martin feel, and about how his feelings of hurt motivated him to act.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Then I told them about the 1963 Birmingham campaign, and how children played a role in toppling Jim Crow in America’s most segregated city. I told them all about the Black children who marched. And the preschoolers wanted to know if they got tired. I explained how many of those children went to jail, and the kids wanted to know if they got scared. And when they learned about the police siccing dogs on them, they asked, 'Why did they want to hurt those children? Why didn’t the police protect them?'
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I taught the kids to sing "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," and I had them stand and march in place, and we sang that freedom song together.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And when the conversation returned to Dr. King, they wanted to know if any of the young demonstrators had gotten killed too. "No," I said. "None did." We covered a lot in 15 minutes, and I wasn’t quite sure what, if anything at all, actually sunk in. And I didn’t stick around to find out, either. When we were done, I said my thank yous and goodbyes, hugged and kissed my daughter, and I bolted for the car, happy to have just survived.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That evening, A’laila didn’t say much about my visit. But a few nights later when I was putting her to bed, she started sharing what she remembered about the discussion—recalling what I had told them about King’s childhood and about the children who had marched with him. And then she said "No children had died," and that's when I realized I never told them about the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, which had left four little girls dead.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When I shared this story, A’laila looked at me like, "Wait, what?" She wasn’t confused, she was just processing this new information. And then she asked me what the names of the girls were. So I picked up my phone, searched 'Birmingham Church bombing,' and said their names: Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. Then I showed A’laila photos of the four girls. And she said that Denise McNair looked like Asha, my oldest daughter, her nine-year-old sister. And she didn’t say much after that.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It was already late, and I thought A’laila had finally fallen asleep. But after a long period of silence she said, "Daddy, I think he was trying to say that America was damaged." I struggled to process what I had heard.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: "Did you say damaged?" "Yes," she said.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: "Are you talking about Dr. King?" "Yes."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: "Well, you’re right. He was trying to say that America was damaged."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Moments later, A’laila was fast asleep. And I was left pondering the wisdom of her words. And I have been thinking about her words ever since, about how best to teach their inherent truth, which is what this episode is all about.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We’re a production of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we’ll be offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle or the US civil rights movement. In each episode we’ll explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Throughout this season, we’ve been confronting the popular but misleading "Master Narrative," which revolves around a caricatured version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. To fully understand the movement, our students need to learn an accurate version of Dr. King's life and activism. In this episode, I talk with historian Charles McKinney about the real Dr. King. I’m so glad you could join us.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We cannot teach the civil rights movement without talking about Martin Luther King Jr. And we cannot talk about teaching Martin Luther King Jr. without talking to Dr. Charles McKinney. Charles McKinney, brother Doctor, welcome to the podcast. It is great to have you here with us.
Charles McKinney: Doctor, brother, it is a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me on.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Of course. Now look, our paths go back a number of years. We both received our graduate degrees from Duke University, but I think you would agree that most importantly, we received our undergraduate degrees from dear old Morehouse College, the alma mater of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You know, I got there a few years after you, you actually were there for the first King holiday.
Charles McKinney: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What was that like?
Charles McKinney: It was stunning, it was overwhelming. So in that fall semester, in the fall of 1985, we would hear all of these updates about all of the people who are going to be in Atlanta. Julian Bond's going to be here. John Lewis is going to be here. Coretta Scott King is going to be here. Political leaders, elected officials, celebrities, stars. It felt a little bit like a coronation. We weren't necessarily placing a crown on an actual individual's head, but we were consolidating a narrative. We were saying in that moment that this is the guy. If you want to understand the civil rights movement, you have to understand this guy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So the King holiday, now we're looking at three-plus decades. Could you explain who is the King that has emerged that we now celebrate every January?
Charles McKinney: Like so many things that start off beautifully [laughs], the trajectory of the King holiday has become infinitely more complicated. This is the process that happens when you create monuments, when you try to memorialize particular individuals at very specific moments in time, that process invariably moves us away from complexity, moves us away from contradiction, moves us away from the stuff of history, and closer to abject celebration.
Charles McKinney: So the King that emerges 30 years later is, to quote my friend and comrade Timothy Tyson, King as this raceless Black Santa Claus. He has been declawed and defanged. He is a proponent of love and non-violence and turning the other cheek. All of these things elements of the truth, but the King that emerges is a King that is taken out of context, a King that is taken out of history. So the version that generations of students have gotten is very different from the historical reality of Martin King.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So before we talk about the King that actually walked the Earth, could you say a word or two about what kind of political work does this mythical King do for the people of America and the world?
Charles McKinney: The first thing is that the mythical King leaves us with the impression that the civil rights movement begins in 1955 and ends in 1968. One of the things I'm talking to my students about all the time is this master narrative that's been constructed over the course of these last 30 years with regard to King and the movement. And probably one of the most profound takeaways that's been developed over the course of the 30 years, right, is that this was a discrete moment in American history. If you're under the impression that the civil rights movement is literally mapped onto Martin King's life, you then are under the impression that the movement is over, that the movement was successful, that everything that King and company set out to do was accomplished.
Charles McKinney: That's a very explicit piece of political work. So if we still see inequality in housing, employment, education, health access, interactions with the police, if we still see disparities in every aspect of American life, those disparities are not a function of the systems and structures that Martin King allegedly successfully fought against in the 1950s and 1960s. If it's not the systems and structures that are in place that are primarily responsible for inequalities now, then it must be "you people." You know, Brown v. Board of Education got rid of segregation in education. So if we still see educational disparities now, well then the first place we need to investigate is whether or not "you people" are really invested in education, right? We can move the onus away from structural realities. And the extent to which we do talk about and contend with structural realities, we make those secondary to the conversation. So you see this in education reform, right? You know, yeah, yeah, yeah, these institutions may be inequitable in these ways, but at the end of the day, this is really a function of whether or not you are invested in education.
Charles McKinney: So that's an example of the work that this mythological King is doing. Nonviolence is centered in some really profound ways. And while on the face of it, that's perfectly well and fine, that's a tactic, that's a philosophy and ideology that coexists with a number of tactics. One of the other things that we lose again when we focus on this mythical King is we lose all of this complexity, we lose the arguments, we lose the dissent. We lose the fact of this moment being an intellectual and political and social and cultural cauldron where Black folk and their allies are cooking up all kinds of plots and schemes, trying to construct new traditions and figuring out what older traditions they can lay claim to or they can access in order to get a little bit more freedom. So that's also missing when we think about this mythical King.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To underscore something that you said as well, we also miss the continuum, right? Everything that you just laid out about the mythical King does nothing to help us understand the current moment and the current protests connected to Black Lives Matter, as well as criminal justice reform.
Charles McKinney: Exactly. You know, if King cleared all of this up back in 1968, we literally don't have a frame of reference to understand these titanic inequities. And then we also don't have a frame of reference to understand and grapple with the fact that there are some things we just didn't fix. We didn't fix police brutality. The number of Black folks who were killed at the hands of law enforcement officers dwarfs the number of Black folks killed in the 1950s and '60s killed by the Klan. But if the only focus is on Klan violence in the 1950s and 1960s, there's a whole bunch of stuff that jumps off in the '60s that we can't account for. This moment of victory in 1965, the Voting Rights Act is signed. Three weeks later? Watts. How do we account for that? Detroit, right? All of the urban rebellions taking place in the latter part of the 1960s. Robert Brisbane, a political scientist, also Morehouse.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Morehouse College.
Charles McKinney: In his book, Black Activism, he said, you know, if one were to survey the United States in the latter part of the 1960s, it would be perfectly logical to conclude that Black folk were in open rebellion. I love that line, because this is at the exact same time when some major pieces of legislation are being passed. We are laying a groundwork to move Black folk into the mainstream of American life. But even back during King's lifetime, we see the titanic struggles that he's engaged in, and how the victories that he is securing in Selma and all throughout the South, how those victories are even back then being mitigated, being undercut, being undermined. Not only do we not have a sense of continuity in this moment, not only are we unable to articulate why something like Black Lives Matter would happen, the mythical King doesn't get us there. The mythical King also doesn't even help us to account for the actions and reactions during King's lifetime, because those things are also cut out of the story.
Charles McKinney: So when we talk about continuities, we can talk about the continuity of the struggle, right? The continuity of Black folk always trying to figure out ways to get more freedom. But we can also talk about the continuum, the persistence, the ceaseless persistence of white supremacy, right? Cultural, political, economic, systematic and institutional forces that seek to deny the progress of African Americans trying to make their way into the mainstream of American life. So that's the other part of the continuum that we don't get at. And then the other thing that happens in terms of this forgetting is what I call the pathological innocence. The "Oh, my God. I don't understand how we got here." Really, you don't. You're an 85-year-old white guy from the American South and you don't understand racial inequality? Could you talk a little bit more about that? So it's this pathological insistence on not knowing why it's still harder for Black folk to buy a house than white folk. Why Black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed than white college graduates. The persistent unknowing about some of the basic elements of American society, elements woven in the founding of the country. So that's the other thing that this mythical King sort of facilitates.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement, recipient of the American Historical Association's 2020 James Harvey Robinson Prize for the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history. And this podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays, which I edited. From now until the end of the year, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You’ll find a link to purchase the book at Tolerance.org/Podcasts. Just use the promotional code: CIVILRIGHTS—all one word. Now let’s continue our conversation with Charles McKinney.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There's real value to teaching King, even the mythical King, right? Because you can deconstruct that mythical King as a point of entry, unpacking and teaching the King who actually walked the Earth. I would think that Montgomery, which is the place where King is sort of introduced to the nation as a whole, is a good point of entry. If you were to use that as the starting point for teaching King, how would you go about that? And what is the value of that?
Charles McKinney: Like you said, this is where Martin King first comes onto the national scene. And this is a great place to start. We have to have a commitment to tell the truth. The idea that the 26 year old in Montgomery just sort of led the movement all by himself, as much as we Morehouse cats would like that to be the truth, that's not actually what happened.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It ain't true.
Charles McKinney: Right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It ain't true.
Charles McKinney: So you arrive at myths by silencing all of the other voices in the room, by silencing all of the other voices that give rise to a particular moment. We have to make this a priority, to bring in these other voices. So there's a couple of places you can start with this, right? And one of the places you can start, I think, is by talking about Rosa Parks. Talk about mythologizing. Parks is this tired, old Black woman. She was like, that's the most irksome thing about this narrative. I wasn't old, right? This activist who had been working with the NAACP and going into rural Alabama and helping Black women who had been sexually assaulted to tell their stories and to battle for justice. She's a warrior. To tell the story of Montgomery, if you really want to be accurate about it, right, you know, King is not the entryway. King is number 14 on E.D. Nixon's list of people that E.D. Nixon calls.
Charles McKinney: Who is E.D. Nixon? Well, he's the state head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and he's also president of the NAACP chapter in Montgomery and he's spent several decades of his life trying to figure out how to gain greater freedom for Black folk. So we can start with E.D. Nixon's narrative. Then we can bring in Joanne Robinson and the Women's Political Council. So then when we do that, then we're also acknowledging that a critical movement force in Montgomery in the 1950s, in addition to Black preachers—yes, they're important, but it's also these Black women who are facing this violence on buses, and had been facing this issue for decades. So that's another potential entry point. We can make this a really compelling story that involves King, but also involves other crucial actors that helped make that moment possible.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So Charles, when I ask my students who do they know about from the civil rights era, they all say Martin Luther King Jr. When I ask them what have they read from the civil rights era, they all say "Letter from Birmingham Jail." How should we as teachers be teaching "Letter from Birmingham Jail?"
Charles McKinney: Again, I think context matters. I remember reading this in high school. It was like, this is really nicely written. See, look at what he does here.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right.
Charles McKinney: Right? Look at all of these references. This is clearly the mind of a person who's been trained in a liberal arts college. We read it as a document, but we didn't read it in context. I had no idea where Birmingham was when I read this letter. The best way to understand the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is to help our students understand Birmingham. We have to move away from these vague notions of segregation. You know, white people were mean. No, that's not it. Birmingham is one of the most violent and the most thoroughly-segregated city in the United States. Birmingham is nicknamed "Bombingham." Fred Shuttlesworth has asked his good friend Martin King and the SCLC to come in because of the intractable nature of white leadership in Birmingham that's aggressively deploying violence.
Charles McKinney: King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is written in response to a letter from eight religious leaders in Birmingham who've said, "Martin, please don't come to our city. We think we're fine. The status quo is changing slowly but surely, and we don't need you coming here and upsetting the apple cart," essentially. "We believe in the system, we believe in law and order, we believe that these issues can be solved through the goodwill of the people of Birmingham and ultimately through the courts." And so King's letter is a response to these clergymen, and it is a great piece of protest literature. Here he is critiquing the people who are supposed to be his strongest white allies. The white clergy members who wrote the initial letter, they're not upholding their end of the bargain. And then he expands that critique to white moderates, who as King would say, have placed order over progress, have placed order over justice.
Charles McKinney: I like to show my students the initial letter, and ask my students to critique it. And then we can really start to dissect what King is trying to tell us in that letter. Why does King feel the need to be in Birmingham? What is the nature of the resistance? What is he telling us about the state of race relations in this letter? What does he say here about the promise of America? What does he say here about those founding promises: We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men, we as a people now created equal. What does it mean that in 1963, this is nowhere near being the case? What's King saying about white moderates? So the letter is a brilliant explication of nonviolence. This is how we do this process. It is an explication of King's growing concern about the really soft support that he feels like he's getting from his white allies.
Charles McKinney: And it's also a harbinger of other dynamics, right? In terms of him contrasting himself to Malcolm X in this letter. He's like, "Look, I'm the moderate. I'm the guy you want to deal with, because there's a whole other set of folks out here who aren't nearly as invested in the things that I am invested in. So you've got a choice to make here." So there's a whole lot going on in this letter. And I understand that your typical middle school teacher, your typical high school teacher, you're not going to have five days to parse out the letter. But what can happen in the one or two days that you have to really grapple with this letter, is that you've got an opportunity to give the context. You know, you can read Elie Wiesel detached from context, but why would you do that? He's not talking generally and vaguely about bad people. His writings are very much rooted in a very particular experience. Same thing applies here with Martin King. Same thing applies with all the folks that we would read during the civil rights and the Black power period I would add as well. The context matters, and that's one of the ways that these words can really jump off the page and can be made more relevant to the lives of students in the contemporary moment.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Tolerance has a new classroom film. The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors is a critical contribution to the unfolding conversation about what our children need to learn about American history. The 12-minute video introduces middle and high school students to the history of Indigenous enslavement on land that is now the United States.
Margaret Newell: African slaves were not a big part of the slave society of New England until the 18th century.
Paula Peters: If you don’t know the whole story, you’re going to walk away with a fairy tale.
Sven Haakanson: But we need to know this, so we can move forward too—both as indigenous communities but as a nation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You can watch this film—and find the accompanying teaching resources—at tolerance.org/forgottenslavery—all one word. Now let’s continue our conversation with Dr. McKinney.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Congressman John Lewis, civil rights activist, former chairperson of SNCC, very much a disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., passed away in mid-July, 2020. Shortly before his death, he wrote this essay to be published on the day of his funeral, called "Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation." What do you think about having students read that and pairing it with "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" as a way to point out some of the continuity for this particular avenue of the struggle?
Charles McKinney: First off, I'm totally stealing that. That's a great idea. One of the things that I impress upon my students is when we're talking about King and we're talking about the SCLC, we spend a little bit of time on that motto.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: SCLC's motto, which was what?
Charles McKinney: "To Redeem the Soul of America."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Charles McKinney: This isn't just simply hamburgers in white restaurants. This isn't an end to segregation. This is something infinitely more foundational. You see echoes of this in Lewis's letter. So one of the things that we can take away from this is that the fight for racial justice is a crucial piece of this larger struggle, right? We can end racism tomorrow and we would still have work to do. So that's one of the things that I would certainly highlight in those two letters: the expansive nature of this endeavor, and the ways in which King and Lewis are thinking about those endeavors, but at the same time are naming the obstacles in the way to that redemption.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is the one document that students are most familiar with, then "I Have a Dream" has to be the one speech that students are most familiar with. What should we be doing in the classroom with "I Have a Dream?"
Charles McKinney: I think it's really important for us to take the entirety of that speech seriously. You know, on January 15th, the speech will be played, but the vast majority of media outlets are just going to give us "Free at last, free at last." They're just going to give us the snippets, and we'll get the snippets that reinforce the mythical King. We'll get the snippets that reinforce this nonviolent and ultimately optimistic narrative of the inevitability of progress. And when we do that, we're doing this because we haven't really contended with the first part of the speech. And the first part of the speech is the grievance part of the speech, where he is laying out in really clear terms the ways in which America has not lived up to its part of the bargain. He's dreaming because he's not there yet.
Charles McKinney: The second part of the speech is aspirational, and he has to be aspirational because of the realities that he lays out in the first part of the speech, right? He says I live in a country that has yet to fulfill its promise, a promise made ostensibly twice, right? A promise made to Black Americans, made to African Americans in the wake of the Civil War, and initially a promise made to citizens of the country back during the founding. And he also lays out in the first part of that speech, he's like, "Look, you know what? There's massive protests going on right now. And I'm here for it. And they're going to continue until we see some movement on these issues that we hold most dear." So it's always so frustrating when I hear people saying, you know, "These Black Lives Matter people, why couldn't they be more like King?" And I'm like, "Well, clearly you haven't read the I Have a Dream speech, because King was like, 'Keep it in the streets.'" It's got another great line in the first part of the speech where he says, "I live in a country now where in the South, the Negro can't vote. And outside of the South, the Negro has nothing to vote for." That's also a really powerful line to me. And I spend a little bit of time, we linger on that line.
Charles McKinney: In Mississippi, Black folk can't vote. In Brooklyn, in Los Angeles, in Chicago, they have nothing to vote for. What are the differences between those two things? What are the implications? Why does King say that? Why doesn't he just leave it in Mississippi? Why doesn't he just leave it in the American South? He does this on purpose. He does this explicitly. The issues of inequality are national. So there's so much in that first part of Dream. And so when we understand that first part, then the second part is seen as more fully and explicitly aspirational, because when you understand the first part, you're like, wow, yeah. This is soaring rhetoric, and this is a beautiful moment. But, oof! Man, we got a whole bunch of work to do, because based on that first part, man, we're a long way from this moment that he's dreaming about.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. In this installment of "Movement Music," historian Charles Hughes introduces us to music that lets us see beyond the mythological Dr. King. Here’s Charles.
Charles Hughes: On April 7th, three days after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the legendary Nina Simone stepped onto the stage of the Westbury Music Hall to perform a song her bass player, Gene Taylor, had just written for Dr, King, titled "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)."
Charles Hughes: Dr. King was not yet buried, and as Black citizens rose in rebellion following his death, musicians from James Brown in Boston to Isaac Hayes in Memphis were recruited to quell the literal and figurative fires that spread from New York to Los Angeles.
Charles Hughes: Simone weeps over King’s grave, calls for a new commitment to peace, and demands that the United States make real the promise of justice. In its unedited 13-minute version, "Why?" becomes as much about the challenge facing the beloved community as it is about the loss of King. This becomes particularly true in Simone’s astonishing ending monologue.
Charles Hughes: Simone is driven by King’s commitment to radical hope, as well as his steadfastness in exposing the depths of American injustice. For Simone, as for King, there is no progress without confrontation, no reconciliation without truth, no peace without justice. Simone’s sorrow is deep, but so is the force of her advice.
Charles Hughes: It is in the music more than the mythology, that we feel the full power of Dr. King’s words and actions. And that we understand his pivotal place in a communal call-and-response, rather than as a singular, or even superhuman figure.
Charles Hughes: King worked with musicians, appearing on stage with friends and fellow travelers like Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson or the Staple Singers, and releasing albums of his speeches on Motown. His last words, spoken from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, just before the assassin’s bullets, were to ask Memphis bandleader Ben Branch to play the gospel standard "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" at that evening’s rally.
Charles Hughes: Musicians mourned his loss for decades. During the fight over establishing a Martin Luther King Holiday, artists composed expressions of support, from Stevie Wonder’s joyful "Happy Birthday" to Public Enemy’s furious "By The Time I Get To Arizona." To this day, King’s voice rings out throughout the hip-hop era and beyond.
Charles Hughes: But perhaps the most powerful testament to King contains no words. Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane released "Alabama" in 1964, at the height of his transformative career. Some reports say that Coltrane based the piece on King’s eulogy for three of the young victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which KKK terrorists committed earlier that year in Birmingham, Alabama.
Charles Hughes: Coltrane’s tenor sax captures Dr. King’s deep connections to Black political and cultural life. It wordlessly, dynamically articulates his righteous, radical mission of freedom.
Charles Hughes: Five years after King’s eulogy that John Coltrane memorialized on "Alabama," Nina Simone offered her own anguished cry on "Why?" Comprehending King requires not only discussing his deep heroism and unparalleled accomplishments, but also the layers and linkages that embedded him within the community. We can hear it in Nina Simone, John Coltrane, or other musical responses to King’s life and legacy. All we need to do is keep listening.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow. Nina Simone's "Why?" A tune written for that day, the day King died. And it's also a tune that's written for today because, as she says, we can't afford any more losses. No more MLK losses, no more George Floyd, no more Breonna Taylor losses. And she calls on us to protect ourselves: the extraordinary among us and the ordinary among us. Those like King and those whose names we say only after they have been taken from us. We have to adhere to what Charles urges us to do: to keep listening, to sit with Coltrane's "Alabama," with Nina Simone's "Why?" to see if we can't answer that question. Be sure to check out our latest Spotify playlist. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify even more of the ideas raised in this episode. Just follow the link in the show notes at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Now back to Charles McKinney.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think of Dr. King, we think of nonviolence. And King's commitment to nonviolence was deep, it was pure, it was true. But we teach King, you know, as, he's born and the doctor slaps him on his behind and he turns the other cheek. It's like, no, no, no. He doesn't come out ...
Charles McKinney: Right. Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: ... with this profound, deep commitment.
Charles McKinney: He comes out nonviolent.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He comes out nonviolent. Like, come on, man. So King's commitment to nonviolence evolves. So how should we be teaching and talking about King's nonviolence and that evolution over time?
Charles McKinney: One of the things that I talk to my students about all the time, popular culture. All of the movies you have ever seen starring a dude go like this: The dude is minding his own business. Some bad guys come along and mess with him or his family or his money. And the dude kills everybody.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs] Everybody.
Charles McKinney: [laughs] Everybody dies. 90 percent of the movies you have ever seen is the dude exacting vengeance upon the bad people who did something bad to him or his family, right? You know, I've got a particular set of skills. I will find you and I will kill you, right? Name the movie you saw where something happens to the dude and the conflict is resolved nonviolently. Taken and Liam Neeson goes to conflict resolution, right? You know, self-defense? I mean, that's just our default mode. So my intro into this conversation is through popular culture, right? And the ways in which you have to hunt really hard to find this investment in nonviolence. And then we can talk about nonviolence as a philosophy, as a way of life, versus nonviolence as a tactic. I love showing the movie Freedom Song in my classes, the movie with Danny Glover and Vondie Curtis Hall. And it's just a wonderful fictionalized rendering of a movement in Mississippi. And one of the SNCC characters gets asked about nonviolence, and he was like, "Look, you know what? I think of nonviolence is a tactic. I practice nonviolence. When I'm on marches, I practice nonviolence. But after the march, you put your hands on me, I'm beating you like a rented mule." And I love that line. He was like, "Yes, from nine to five, engaged in these particular activities, I am a nonviolent activist. But at 8:50 a.m. and 5:15 p.m., you roll up on me like that, I'ma put these hands on you."
Charles McKinney: So then we can have conversations, and I like to have conversations with my students. I give them scenarios, right? Like a scenario that I bumped into doing my research for my first book. There's a group of SNCC workers, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They're in a rural town in North Carolina, and they're engaged in a strategy meeting at a church. And they're charting out their next nonviolent action. Now this church is being guarded by 12 Black men with shotguns, acting as a deterrent to any sort of untoward activity that may be initiated by the Klan. So I asked my students, what is that? How would you characterize that? We're so used to this dichotomy between nonviolence and violence, right? Martin is nonviolent and Malcolm is violent. Oh, please stop that. You're killing me. Get out of my classroom. So I ask them what is that? How would you characterize that? How would you talk about that moment? And the place where I hope they go, and they usually wind up getting there is oh, this is a little more complicated than I thought it was.
Charles McKinney: You and I have had these conversations with all of our friends and homies in the civil rights community, right? You know, we tend to think of nonviolence and self-defense as yin and yang. They coexist. And King is really sort of emblematic of that relationship. After his house is blown up, Bayard Rustin's got that wonderful essay or a newspaper article, I can't remember which one, he's like, "I went to Martin King's house and it was just packed full of brothers with guns!"
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Negroes with guns.
Charles McKinney: Negroes with guns. They're like, "Man, this ain't happening again." He is thinking about nonviolence, but also he's not afraid to sometimes hedge his bets, because sometimes when the Deacons for Defense say, "Hey, brother, you need a little extra protection?" Sometimes Martin is like, "You know what? That might not be a bad idea," right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: James Meredith March Against Fear. Y'all okay. Y'all can hang around.
Charles McKinney: Yeah, right. March Against Fear. And I saw that in my research. I have this brother by the name of Charles Davis. And he said, "You know what? One of the reasons I was able to participate in these marches is that there was these brothers out here that we would call 'protectors.' And they were like, 'Man, we ain't nonviolent.' And we said to them, 'Look, if you can't be nonviolent, you can't march.' And those brothers said, 'Okay, fine. We won't march, but we'll be out here on the corner, right? We'll be out here in strategic locations throughout your march so that you will always be able to see us and know where we are.'" And Charles Davis said "That's what what gave me the courage. I can be out here and engaged in this nonviolence, knowing that the brothers are out here," right? "And if anything jumps off, then I can remain nonviolent. But I can't say the same for my man. So if somebody puts their hands on me—" and the white folks know this, too. And we see examples of this all across the country in terms of, you know, "No, no, no, no, no. We might not want to accost this group of Negroes, because that group of Negroes over there with their hands in their pockets, they don't look nonviolent to me. [laughs] And so I think maybe we ought to let this first set of Negroes do what they're going to do."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Now SNCC activists, over the course of their time working with Dr. King, offered real strident critiques of Dr. King. They used to call him the Lord. One, what was the basis for their criticism? And two, should we be surprised that there was criticism from partners and allies?
Charles McKinney: Great question, brother. This is the thing, right? Again, putting our beloved Morehouse brother on this pedestal, we lose out on the controversy. We lose out on the dissent. One of the things that I like to tell my students, and one of the things I tell a lot of teachers when I do the teacher trainings is when we talk about the 1960s and we talk about civil rights, you hear a lot of folks, particularly a lot of Black folk going, "Oh, back in the day, we were more unified." And one of the things that I remind teachers and students and people on Facebook and Twitter is that all of the innovations that you are thinking about in this moment are functions of dissent. The existence of every major civil rights organization in this country is a function of dissent, is a function of a group of people saying, "Hey, you know what? The status quo ain't getting us where we need to go." 1909, NAACP says, "Hey, you know what? The status quo is not getting us where we need to go. We need to create something different to engage these battles with some different tactics and some different ways."
Charles McKinney: Congress of Racial Equality, 1940's, same thing. We need to be more direct. Court cases are great and wonderful and fine, but sometimes you need to go march down to the establishments that you want to desegregate and force them nonviolently to make a choice, force them in the light of day to either stand for or against segregation. Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Hey, you know what? We need a civil rights organization that is not based in New York City. God bless the NAACP, but you know what? They're too far away. We need a regional organization that figures out ways to mobilize Black institutions, Black churches in particular. So we're going to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SNCC, same thing. Dissent. This isn't getting us where we need to go. The Panthers, '66. Hey, you know what? God bless all these other organizations. They're not speaking to the material realities of Black people, particularly Black folks in these urban areas outside of the South. So hey, we're going to do something different out here in Oakland, right? On and on and on and on and on. All of these organizations functions of dissent.
Charles McKinney: So it should not come as a surprise to us, the levels of dissent both within organizations and between organizations and individuals. The generational divides here are also really important. By the time we get into the early 1960s, King is viewed as the old guard. You know, even though he's still a relatively young man, but the 22 year olds and the 23 year olds, and the high school students and the college students who are engaged in sit-ins, who are engaged in the Freedom Rides, who are in the process of doing all manner of wade-ins and read-ins and sit-ins and pray-ins, right? This vanguard of the movement, they push King in some really profound ways. And so this is another one of the things that we have to remember. That King, right, is not the author of the sit-in movement. He does not do that. He has to respond to that. So Diane Nash and a young John Lewis and the folks who would go on to create the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and young people across the South are pushing King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP that are, relative to SNCC and relative to young college students, are much more moderate organizations.
Charles McKinney: I think it's really important for us to show our students the sort of tactical and ideological diversity that makes up the stuff of movement. When we think of this as just sort of a unitary line of progress: Negroes used to be segregated and then Barack Obama, right? [laughs] You know, this unitary line of action and thought, that narrative obscures way more than it reveals.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I’m your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We’re hoping you will apply what you learn from the podcast in your classrooms. That’s why for every episode, we prepare a detailed page of show notes just for you. It includes a complete transcript, which our team has enhanced with links to many relevant resources. This means you can easily find the materials mentioned by our guests, along with other tools for teaching about Martin Luther King Jr. You can find these detailed show notes at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Let’s return now to Dr. McKinney.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Where does King end up at the end of his life in terms of his critique of American society, and where the priorities of the movement ought to be?
Charles McKinney: The thing that I always encourage my students to read, and I've assigned it a number of times, right, is Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Written in the last year of his life, published posthumously after he is assassinated. It's an overview of how the movement had evolved, but also it's a really stark assessment of the state of the nation and the state of the movement. He lays out very explicitly the barriers to fundamental systemic change. He lays out the seemingly intractable nature of white racism, and a seemingly growing number of people who are resistant to some of the transformations to American society that King and his allies would like to see take place. This is one of the reasons why he's so unpopular is because he's like, "Look, we've got some major structural changing we need to do. You know, our allies who were with us in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when this was simply viewed as a Southern problem, those allies are in the process of scattering to the four winds."
Charles McKinney: People in Boston were all for school integration in Little Rock. People in Los Angeles and in Chicago and Duluth, Minnesota, are all for school integration in Atlanta, but when it comes to school integration in their cities, well then that's a completely different dynamic. There is an economic order in this country that explicitly subordinates poor people. There is an economic order in this country that is explicitly marginalizing. And it's a system that's doing what it's designed to do. King understands that we've got some difficult days ahead. And yet he's remained committed to the power of mass-based, nonviolent direct action to create spaces of opportunity with the federal government, with state governments, right, with people in positions of power, to move us toward that beloved community, that concept that folks had been articulating.
Charles McKinney: So Where Do We Go from Here is a powerful warning. But it's also a really powerful blueprint as far as King is concerned, in terms of how we can, in fact, move forward in a way that brings us together as a nation, move forward in a way that enables all of us to prosper, move forward in a way in which all of us are valued. But it's going to take some titanic shifts in American thought, in American culture. It's going to take some titanic shifts in our political life, the way in which we've organized our societies, to redeem the soul of America. This is deep, structural work that King is talking about. This is the work that gets stripped away from this mythical King. This is the work that does not get talked about in Atlanta, Georgia, in January of 1986 in any sort of explicit way that I can remember.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We know, looking at state standards, that King is one of the few civil rights-era figures who is being taught at the K-12 level. If there was one thing that students would come out of their early education knowing about King before they entered into your classroom at Rhodes College, one thing that teachers would make sure that kids knew about MLK before you got your hands on them to make your deep dive into King's life a little bit easier, what would that be?
Charles McKinney: Other than the fact that he attended Morehouse College?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Other than the fact that he attended dear old Morehouse.
Charles McKinney: Okay. You know, the thing that I keep going back to is Martin King is a brilliant young man who is learning and growing as he moves through time. I think it's really important for young people to hear that, because I think that's another way to help young people get connected with King. When we turn people to monuments, they stop making mistakes. They stop playing with their kids or eating fried chicken on Sundays, right? They stop getting mad. They stop being human. We lose sight of the fact that this brother starts out, he's 26 years old in Montgomery.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.
Charles McKinney: What have you learned at the age of 26? What are you doing at the age of 26, right? I mean, you know, when I was 26, when you were 26, I mean, you know, all of you out there in podcast land, right? You know, no shade on any of us, right? But good God, right? At the age of 26, this cat's leading a soon-to-be nationally and internationally-regarded movement for freedom. And he does not do that as a fully-grown man. This is why E.D. Nixon picks him. He's like, look, we want King to be the spokesperson. He's articulate. He's really smart. But if this thing crashes and burns, Martin Luther King Jr. is young enough so that he can go somewhere else and start over. He is being taught. Bayard Rustin, E.D. Nixon, Ella Baker. Miss Baker, Miss Baker, Miss Baker. He's bumping into folks who have forgotten more about how to build movements than he will ever know, arguably. A. Philip Randolph, all of the amazing individuals that he's going to meet along his journey, along his path. Shuttlesworth and Bevel and Willie Ricks Mukasa down in, you know, Booba Africans, Brother Mukasa. I mean, you know, so he's going to meet all of these amazing people, and they're going to pour into him. And the only reason that they're able to pour into him is because he is open, is because he is like, "Yes, teach me. I've got some ideas about how these things should work, but I'm also smart enough to know when I need to be quiet and when I need to listen to the wisdom of my contemporaries, when I need to listen to the wisdom of folks who are younger than me, but also when I need to listen to the wisdom of the folks who came ahead of me." This is an individual who is wonderfully, beautifully human. And we would do well to remember that as we contend with his legacy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We would do well to remember that. And thank you, brother Doctor, for teaching us this important lesson about how to teach our brother alumnus, Dr. Martin Luther King, accurately and effectively. Thank you very much, Charles McKinney.
Charles McKinney: Brother, it was a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we will be remiss if we didn't go out with a little Dear Old Morehouse. So cue Dear Old Morehouse, the alma mater. That's how are we going to ride out in tribute to the good Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. We are out of here. Enjoy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Charles McKinney is an associate professor of history and the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies at Rhodes College. He is the author of Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina. And the co-editor of An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee from University Press of Kentucky.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find these online at Tolerance.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery for two seasons. And now we’re tracing that legacy of oppression—and resistance—into the present.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. McKinnney for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Movement Music" is produced by Barrett Golding, and Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Our interns are Miranda LaFond—who helped to produce this episode—and Amelia Gragg. Kate Shuster is our executive producer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our theme song is “The Colors That You Bring” by Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from their album Where Future Unfolds. And from Wendel Patrick's JDWP Tribute.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
- Charles McKinney, Africana Studies, Rhodes College
- King Institute, King National Holiday
- Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name
- Learning for Justice, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas
- National Archives, Congress and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
- Morehouse College, A Short Biography of Dr. Robert Hughes Brisbane
- Robert H. Brisbane, Black Activism: Racial Revolution in the United States, 1954–1970
- Learning for Justice, Civil Rights March in Selma
- The Atlantic, African-Americans With College Degrees Are Twice As Likely to Be Unemployed as Other Graduates
- Learning for Justice, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story
- King Institute, Edgar Daniel Nixon
- BlackPast, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925-1978)
- National Museum of African American History and Culture, Jo Ann Robinson: A Heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
- Learning for Justice, Letter From a Birmingham Jail
- AL.com, Bombingham: Racist bombings captured in chilling photos
- Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC History
- BlackPast, Malcolm X (1925-1965)
- The New York Times, Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz Survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dies at 87
- MSNBC The Last Word, Morgan Freeman Reads Rep. John Lewis’ Last Words (YouTube)
- Learning for Justice, I Have a Dream
- Nina Simone, The High Priestess of Soul
- Nina Simone, Why? (The King of Love is Dead) (lyrics)
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- John Coltrane, Alabama (Live At Birdland Jazzclub, New York City, NY, 10/18/1963)
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- Waging Nonviolence, When Martin Luther King gave up his guns
- PBS Independent Lens, Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power
- SNCC, Meredith March
- The Guardian, Diane Nash: ‘Non-violent protest was the most important invention of the 20th century’
- Learning for Justice, President Obama's Address on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday
- Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
- Learning for Justice, Sharing the Truth of Bayard Rustin
- Charles McKinney, Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina
- Charles McKinney (co-editor), An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee