There's So Much More to MLK Than 'I Have a Dream'

There's more to Martin Luther King and his ideas than one very famous speech.

Back in 2001, I was trying to get my eleventh grade U.S. history class to focus on a passage from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Unfortunately, I was not surprised when a student protested, "We already know about him. We're tired of hearing about Martin Luther King."

So I asked, "Okay, what do you know about him?"

"He had a dream," another student replied as others laughed.

I insisted that there was infinitely more to King and his ideas than one very famous speech. "Well, that's all they ever show us," someone complained.

"And that's why I'm trying to show you something new about him," I responded, showing—I hope—only a hint of my frustration.

I decided to put together a unit designed to help students penetrate the curtain of clichés and lies the corporate media have erected around Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to make him "safe" for public consumption. The bland projection of an image promoting moderate reforms and racial harmony obscures King’s legacy of opposition to capitalist exploitation and violence at home and abroad.

My goal was for my students to be able to explicitly identify the ways in which King is portrayed in the mass media, and specifically, which of his ideas are communicated to the public. I also wanted them to read and discuss a range of King's ideas that are almost completely unknown to most of the public today and reflect upon why many of King's ideas introduced in this lesson are almost never referenced in the mass media or in U.S. history textbooks.

For example, like the students in my class, most students have heard about Dr. King's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, but they rarely hear about his "Beyond Vietnam," address given four years later on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City. At a time when nearly 25 percent of American children live in poverty, King’s words on the extremes of wealth and poverty still resonate today:

"… I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."


Many students also don't know that corporate outsourcing of jobs overseas was also a problem nearly 46 years ago when Dr. King gave this speech. He went on to note:

"…A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: 'This is not just.'"

While many of my students have at least some knowledge of the Vietnam War, most have been surprised to learn that King vehemently opposed the war and called the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Of course, this leads to a discussion of parallels with U.S. militarism in our time.

One student wrote,

"What I didn't know was what he wanted to do for Vietnam. He said the bulldozers destroyed their areas and the precious trees, poison their water and kill a million acres of crops. He said if 'we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing [clergy and laymen concerned] committees for the next generation.' I never heard this whole speech before and I thought it was cool that he wanted to help not just the African Americans but Vietnamese."


Others were equally surprised that King planned to lead a massive direct action Poor People's Campaign. One student explained that she "didn’t know that his plan was to 'mobilize and train thousands of poor and allies to camp out [in front of the White House] with him until they help the poor.' He planned to group the poor together, no matter the color, race. I didn't know he wanted unity, well maybe I did, but I didn’t know he fought for the justice of poor people of all color and race."

This student's closing sentence highlights a key difference between the simplistic racial harmony typically attributed to Dr. King and the militant, multiracial class solidarity he actively organized just before he was murdered.

I have taught a version of this mini-unit every year since developing it, revising it each time based on the previous year’s experience. When I moved to middle school last year I adjusted the pedagogy and content for my eighth graders, who proved to be as receptive to King’s radical vision as my eleventh graders had been. But the administration at my new school objected that "its place in the sequence of the curriculum and its relevance to the content standards is questionable," since California’s eighth grade U.S. History framework formally concludes in 1914.

The administration either hadn't noticed the explicit connections the lesson—taught during Black History Month—made between struggles against slavery and Native American removal. Or maybe they didn't think these connections sufficiently justified two days of instructional time in the weeks preceding the state’s high stakes standardized history test.

I cannot justify taking this material out of my curriculum and denying my students what may be their only chance to encounter Martin Luther King's radical vision that is as relevant now as ever. As one of my students wrote, "We never hear about King’s other ideas because the people in power are afraid that we might try to take up some of King’s ideas and make it a reality."

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A version of this post originally appeared at Zinn Education Project. For more lessons and readings for “teaching outside the textbook” about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., visit the Zinn Education Project:

via Douglas Muth / Flickr

Sin City is doing something good for its less fortunate citizens as well as those who've broken the law this month. The city of Las Vegas, Nevada will drop any parking ticket fines for those who make a donation to a local food bank.

A parking ticket can cost up to $100 in Las Vegas but the whole thing can be forgiven by bringing in non-perishable food items of equal or greater value to the Parking Services Offices at 500 S. Main Street through December 16.

The program is designed to help the less fortunate during the holidays.

Keep Reading Show less

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
via / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by HAL9001 on Unsplash

The U.K. is trying to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but aviation may become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. by that same year. A new study commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and conducted at the Imperial College London says that in order for the U.K. to reach its target, aviation can only see a 25% increase, and they've got a very specific recommendation on how to fix it: Curb frequent flyer programs.

Currently, air travel accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, however that number is projected to increase for several reasons. There's a growing demand for air travel, yet it's harder to decarbonize aviation. Electric cars are becoming more common. Electric planes, not so much. If things keep on going the way they are, flights in the U.K. should increase by 50%.

Nearly every airline in the world has a frequent flyer program. The programs offer perks, including free flights, if customers get a certain amount of points. According to the study, 70% of all flights from the U.K. are taken by 15% of the population, with many people taking additional (and arguably unnecessary) flights to "maintain their privileged traveler status."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet