Growing up, I never had a good sense of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. In elementary school, I thought of him as a secular saint, a monument in history who dreamed of people of all colors holding hands around a globe.
Indeed, the "I have a dream" soundbite is the most common version of Dr. King taught in school and pushed through media coverage leading up to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday. Although my after school program at the Boys Club on Manhattan's Lower East Side had a viewing of the documentary Eyes on the Prize, which made Dr. King a more real person, he still felt distant, as if the events in his life were more scripted than lived. Because such a caricature puts perfection in front of process, the Dr. King "sainthood" message puts the work for social justice at a disadvantage.
Only in college did Dr. King's life become real to me. His part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his leadership for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, his sacrifices and arrests when forcing himself into segregated places, and his fiery oratory when speaking out against poverty, war, and racial justice are large parts of his astounding and well-celebrated legacy. I also learned about the rarely-taught, less luminous aspects of his history.
At first glance, the list of strikes against him puts dents in his legacy: the allegations of cheating in college and adultery as a pastor and married man, the distance he showed with different people in his movement, and the stroke of red communism that the FBI had a hand in painting to discredit his life's work. For someone who grew up worshiping saints, I found these charges refreshing because they made his example easier to follow.
Yet, despite this evidence of Dr. King’s humanity, every year people speak of his work as something unattainable. If you look at his work through a modern lens, at first glance it seems difficult to replicate. For example, King was primarily sponsored by his congregation, thereby beholden to the people he served and not to government or corporate interests. In our times of austerity and economic inequality, very few advocates can work under such an agreement. They must diversify their funding sources to include philanthropists and benevolent venture funders—they owe those funders, not the people.
And, too many of us think that, because we made a mistake in our lives, activism doesn't belong to us as a collective. In fact, it does. We ought to work as change agents in the different capacities we have. To wit, the redacted parts of King's speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 aren't commercial-ready. To this day his social and economic vision for the American "Negro' sparks controversy about his life post-Dream speech. In his boldest statement, Dr. King says, "… they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir," which speaks to the centuries-old argument for reparations for the descendants of the slaves that ensured America's prosperity.
The entire life history of such a complex man can't fully be taught in schools, but we do a large disservice to him, his legacy, and the legacies of others if we don’t teach students these nuances—both his moments of triumph and his flaws— early on. Obviously, when first introducing this subject, we don't have to give them the breadth of Dr. King's—and other prominent figures in American history—life, but we need to find a balance between worship and critique so this generation of kids understand that, yes, they can change the world and open hearts, too.