Celebrating MLK Day

Learning from Writing on the Civil Rights Movement

For the past few years, some have posed the idea that because our president is African American, we are now living in a post-racial society. Events and injustices in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Michigan, and Florida—frankly all over the US—illustrate that we are not. In response to these injustices, people have been protesting. Some of the protests have been well organized, peaceful, and have sent positive messages. Other protests have quickly unraveled and lost any sense of organization. In these cases, the protests became little more than a thinly veiled excuse to loot, cause destruction, and even become violent. There is no doubt that discourse is necessary, and the classroom is a great place to start talking and sharing ideas.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings, philosophies, and personal history have always been upheld as tenants and guidelines for creating change against adversity, and today is no exception. While the writings of Malcolm X have not been as widely embraced, his work offers a valuable and historical counterpoint to Dr. King’s. Malcolm X’s influence on the civil rights movement should be taught and understood in context. To help begin the conversation, Books That Grow offers your class Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail; Fearless Justice, an autobiography of Dr. King; and Malcolm X: The Unforgettable Fire.

Dr. King’s Philosophy

Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail resonates now more than ever. From an early age, children need to be taught to think critically and understand that justice and the law don’t always coincide. Dr. King’s writing and philosophy prescribe proactive ways to address and correct these injustices and caution against dangerous ways of addressing and correcting injustices. In Letter, Dr. King discusses what makes his philosophy of non-violent protest so effective: it draws attention to injustice, without perpetuating a vicious cycle of violence. More than that, Dr. King’s writing encourages tolerance of other views and opens up a dialogue between parties, instead of promoting a one-sided monologue of violence and destruction.

Introducing Dr. King’s Ideas to Students

Depending on the age of the reader, there are different ways to introduce Dr. King’s ideas to students. For older high school students, Letter From a Birmingham Jail is a perfect introductory text to Dr. King. In many ways, it is the distillation of his philosophical beliefs, which were informed by his undergraduate study of sociology and his graduate study of theology. For younger readers, Dr. King’s penetrating insights about systemic injustice may be a bit daunting, however, these readers can still benefit from Dr. King’s autobiography, Fearless Justice. Although this piece deals less explicitly with the realm of ideas, it provides concrete examples of racial hardships faced by Dr. King that are bound to resonate with younger students and force them to ask higher-order questions concerning race relations.

Providing Guidance to Effect Change

Having studied the works of Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau, Dr. King arrived at the unwavering conviction—which he expresses in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail—that tactical non-violence was both a balm for an oppressed people and an effective way to bring formerly rationalized injustices to the forefront of the social and political landscape. Letter provided civil rights activists with the guidance and philosophical framework to work to make necessary changes, and it attracted media attention and empathy across the United States and around the world.

Malcolm X’s Philosophy

Much of Malcolm X’s leadership was in philosophical opposition to Dr. King’s. Malcolm X justified violence and popularized the phrase “by any means necessary.” He advocated for both the establishment of a separate black community (rather than integration) and the use of violence in self-defense (rather than non-violence). In other words, Malcolm X was not a vigilante, and he didn’t advocate for the random or planned use of violence. He believed people should protect themselves and their rights.

Teaching Malcolm X’s Ideas in Context

For interested teachers, comparing the ideological beliefs of Dr. King and Malcolm X is an easy way to help students understand the various sub-movements that comprise the civil rights movement. Although it’s a simplification of history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often grouped into the more moderate camp, who sought to change the status quo through non-violent protest and legislative change, while Malcolm X is often grouped into the more militant camp, best represented by groups like The Nation of Islam and The Black Panthers. A quick and easy activity for teachers is to divide the class into two groups and have each one do collaborative presentations about the rationale behind Dr. King and Malcolm X’s unique approach to spearheading civil rights issues. Although violence is rarely justified, taking Malcolm X’s perspective is also a lesson in empathy and can help students understand the sense of frustration that makes violence seem like a viable alternative when compared with dilatory social change.

Additional Teaching Supplements from Books That Grow

Don’t miss out on Books That Grow’s differentiated versions of Letter From a Birmingham Jail and Malcolm X: The Unforgettable Fire! There is a teaching guide available for Letter, and one for Malcolm X will be ready soon. We’d love to hear about how you use these texts and the discussions they are sure to inspire with your students. Please let us know by e-mailing us.