When I taught political science courses, one of my favorite lessons would be on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That would usually come up in the civil rights chapter of the American government intro courses, or I would include it in my courses on race, gender and politics. The reason why it was my favorite was because it gave me an opportunity to share with my students the real Dr. King, and see them wrestle with it.
Each year in the United States, we take a day in January to observe Dr. King’s birthday. He is lauded as a great, non-violent civil rights leader who gave the “I Have a Dream” speech.
And he was. But understanding Dr. King, and why his message was so controversial and challenging to white America despite his philosophy of non-violence, we have to go beyond the Dream.
Much of what Dr. King said was not only controversial in his time, but also in this time.
The speech I would have my students read was this one. You should read it too.
In it, Dr. King speaks to issues and solutions that are still difficult for many Americans to process, such as systematic discrimination, white guilt, the responsibility of the white church, affirmative action, and reparations.
For many of us who are only familiar with a sanitized Dr. King, it’s hard to reconcile the Dream with King’s views on these issues. But the history of race and race relations in the United States, like Dr. King’s views on racism and racial progress, are complex. And we should treat these issues with the seriousness and nuance they deserve.
In the age of Trump, Dr. King’s words – all of them – are just as important and timely as ever. Going beyond the Dream and understanding the hard things can help us to grow as a society and nation.