It’s no longer MLK Day.
You can tell, because many of the people who took the time to post one of his less controversial quotes last Monday have gone back to expressing their opposition to having public schools teach about Martin Luther King Jr. and the deeply ingrained societal racism he struggled against. Their MLK Day interest in civil rights is like Black Friday flash sales: One day only, and often already out of stock by mid-afternoon!
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has pushed a bill prohibiting Florida schools from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” when teaching about America’s history of discrimination. Which I guess explains why this textbook has crossed out the words “suffered enslavement” and has the words “happy workers” written in crayon. Apparently, some people get very uncomfortable if you talk about the evils of racism when it’s not MLK Day. Perhaps because they think all of America’s civil rights history is MLK?
Civil rights goes beyond MLK.
The great man marched in Selma, and he explained, “You have to tell the whole truth, the good and the bad, maybe some things that are uncomfortable for some people,” a lesson we would be wise to remember when considering whether to teach history that may discomfort some people. Of course, that particular great man marching in Selma wasn’t MLK, but John Lewis, whose legacy includes the Voting Rights Act that bears his name. All Americans deserve to have their constitutional right to vote protected, because there is no equality without an equal vote.
John Lewis wasn’t the only one who believed in the value of uncomfortable learning. It was the revered leader we knew by three letters who said, “Too often we... enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” He also said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.” And okay, technically that was JFK and not MLK, but the point stands; we can’t be afraid to acknowledge America’s racist history, because that’s the first step in understanding that we need to do better. Preventing schools from teaching the truth of our history is not an answer.
(Well, okay, it’s ananswer, but it’s a terrible answer, like the people whose response to scientific reports showing a project is unsafe is to immediately cancel the reports and continue the project.)
King spoke about the racism in his time saying, “It’s happening right now... it’s just not on film, it’s not being recorded.” Admittedly, that wasn’t Martin Luther King, it was Rodney King. But these days, as you know if you have ever been on the Internet, there is plenty of racism recorded. More than enough. Too much. I think the only thing there’s more of online is cat videos. We are long past the days where people could claim with a straight face that they’ve seen no evidence of discrimination.
And addressing that discrimination is something that needs to be done immediately. “How soon not now becomes never,” in the words of Martin Luther. That’s the progenitor of Protestantism, not MLK—although MLK did echo these ideas when he said, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And to prevent teaching the reality of America’s history is to further delay justice, because to grapple with the racial issues of today, we do need that historical context.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew this when he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” Might learning about these underlying causes be uncomfortable for some people? Possibly! But far less so than the amount of discomfort foisted upon people who are most directly adversely affected by said causes. And we cannot ameliorate the situation until we acknowledge it and understand the historical context, which is why America’s history needs to be engaged with honestly.
Even when it’s not MLK Day.