Dr. King (undated) - AP, creative commons
That’s when I discovered his Drum Major Instinct speech from February 1968. I was familiar with the portions where he spoke eloquently about his own eulogy (Link here) and famously said, “I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others... I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity."
President Trump continues to both exploit and expose racism in the United States. Sure, Trump’s disgraceful remarks reveal his character, but they also beg the question, who are we?
Who we are is complicated. It is hard to accept a reality where a sizable portion of our electorate either has the luxury to ignore the consequences of Trump's words and actions or worse, chooses to support him despite the negative consequences. Maybe worse, some people are unaware that silently looking away is accepting the Trump world view and that also has consequences that will be difficult to fix. Sadly, children can get swept up in adult complicity and that's where schools can play a vital role in calling out intolerance and bigotry. Even in the age of Trump, American values like diversity, equality and civic engagement can still be taught independent of politics or ideology. This is one of the great social studies education challenges of our time.
The prejudice and fear underlying the current debate about refugees, immigrants and border security (AKA "the wall") are evidence that it will take more than the passage of another five decades to heal our open racism wounds in the United States. With each mean-spirited tweet and hateful rant by the president, the opening for for a worthy policy debate gets swallowed by Trump's shadow. King’s 1968 Drum Major sermon was a warning to Americans about what can happen if unfit leaders obtain power. Meanwhile, in 2018 too many people have taken cover under Trump's shadow and chosen him as their drum major. Acknowledging the intolerance and prejudice espoused by President Trump and making honest efforts to do better is as important today as eradicating racist voting laws was in the 1960's.
King's words in 1968 were a harbinger of modern America. Policies carrying the stench of bigotry cannot be separated from the words and deeds of the man who promotes them. It has become increasingly more difficult to separate the merits of policy disagreements from the ugly insults President Trump uses to disparage minorities, his opponents, the media and sometimes even members of his own political party.
Remaining vigilant and seeking the truth may be exhausting, but not doing so could lead to a crisis.
How was I not aware?
John Lewis (far right) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) leading
a march in Alabama to protest restrictive voting rights for
African Americans in 1965. (Public Domain)
A portion of the interview centered around the courageous work of US Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) during the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis and King organized the March from Selma to Montgomery, later known as Bloody Sunday due to the violence that ensued at the hands of law enforcement.
Letterman and Obama reminisced about the bravery of Americans throughout history who blazed a trail for others in their quest for a more perfect union. In the interview, President Obama marveled at the ordinary people who courageously took action and joined together to make change. He remarked that presidential leadership involves more than governing and he credited his wife Michelle Obama for bringing that fact into focus for him.
Increasing awareness of the current US challenges may be the first hurdle we need to clear in order to dig into the more complicated work of creating a better future. We need to overcome narratives by the current White House and their allies that tell us everything is just fine and that real problems related to economic inequality, racism and sexism do not belong to all of us to solve.
To that point Letterman claimed luck helped propel him to a national platform as an entertainer. He made that point by suggesting that the failure to respond with empathy to the real struggles faced by others is part of our American legacy.
|President Obama and David Letterman backstage as part of the hour-long |
Netflix special that aired in January 2018. Photo by Joe Pugliese / Netflix
Letterman’s response hit home and made me realize that the American story that we talk about in schools is at worst contrived and at best incomplete. Letterman’s conversation with President Obama has prompted me to raise my own level of awareness.
I never want my students to say in ten, twenty or even fifty years when they look back at this period in our nation’s history, “Why was I not aware?”
Intentionally tackling issues and raising awareness in schools
This documentary from 2017 is on my list to watch
as soon as possible. It was nominated for an Oscar and
won the Audience Choice Award for the Best
Documentary Feature at the 2016 Chicago International
Lately I have been listening to and reading speeches by prominent American leaders, investigating how their ideas might apply today. In my quest to make some sense of the vitriol and tribalism that is swirling around the Trump Administration, I have firmly landed on a few truths about my role as an educator:
- Students and teachers need space to explore important topics in a safe setting where “right and wrong” takes a backseat to “learning and understanding."
- It is critical that teachers at every level help young people grapple with the implications of privilege, bias and complicity. A failure to exercise our “empathy muscles” in school weakens the prospects for lasting change.
- Mutual respect, trust and solid relationships in a classroom are a minimum requirement and those aspects of a learning culture simply allows for the work to begin. Expecting people to act boldly and truthfully requires a culture of learning that encourages people to change their minds when new information persuades us to think in more enlightened ways.
This book really opened my eyes to how
much I don't know about the American
experience. I agree with Toni Morrison
- this is required reading.
President Obama is right - there are no shortcuts. So, let's get to work today so that this era can mark the point in our history when we finally acknowledge our unawareness and actually do something about it. That is a legacy Republicans and Democrats could all be proud to claim ownership.
NOTE: Dr. King's Drum Major Instinct sermon was adapted from a 1952 homily by preacher J. Wallace Hamilton.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR of CIVICS ENGAGED: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher in Michigan since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2002. Gregory is a Michigan Education Voice Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning. You can follow him on Twitter @CivicsEngaged.