Sunday, January 20, 2008

A King for Our Times

Around this time every year, as with many, King is on the mind. For many years the "I have a dream" mantra has dotted the airwaves and enveloped the history classroom. I sought to try to begin changing that a few years ago--at least in my classroom.

My students had already memorized a good part of the "dream" speech in their literature classes, so I introduced them first to the King who had a doctorate in theology. I then introduced a King who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 by having students read the speech. Discussions were interesting. This assignment preceded my reading of a few paragraphs of King's 1967 Vietnam War speech. The prophet was speaking, and speaking loudly and clearly, and he suffered for it.

Who is King for our times? A radical King, a prophetic King.

Harvard Sitkoff, a historian at the University of New Hampshire, just published a new biography that recollects--or resurrects--a radical and religious King who saw as part of the call to justice economic equality and antiwar activism.

And how is King remembered by some? Historian Andrew Manis published a short piece in 2005 titled "White America and the MLK Holiday." It is a penetrating article, and deserves to be read and re-read every January if not more frequently. A sampling of lines: "White America loves the colorblind King of 1963, but we studiously avoid the more radical King of 1968," and "King's birthday is a wonderful opportunity for the majority of white Americans to awake from our dreamworld."

While King's "I Have a Dream" speech is a profound and important oration, let us not forget his equally powerful and prophetic musings from the late 1960s.

It is here we may find a King for our times.

[Photo credit here.]