By time Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, civility had already left the room

By time Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, civility had already left the room
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Tomorrow will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. In his 1972 Esquire essay James Baldwin described this historic moment in 1968 as the end of civility in the civil rights movement and a turning point in American culture.

Over the years, when teaching our son about King, we would give all the details of his life’s work. We humanized King for our son, as a way to avoid turning him into a kind of messianic historical figure. In terms of teaching our son about King’s life and work, we think we’ve done a pretty good job. Yet there is one important detail in the narrative of King’s life that we did not address: the assassination.

Implicitly, we did not want our son and now, our younger daughter to conclude that death is the final outcome of humanistic activism. We also were apprehensive about the violence associated with this tragic ending to King’s life. Whenever images of the Lorraine Hotel would show up in books and on television, we would seamlessly pass over this vital, yet tragic part of his life.

For certain, our son has a much more sophisticated understanding of race, racism, and the fight for civil rights in the U.S. than many children his age. For one, both of his parents are researchers and professors whose work addresses race issues in education and society.


Our son comfortably talks about race and racism because he has grown up in a space where this was seen as normal to do. However, when it came to discussing racism, in the form of the assassination of King, we balked, hesitated and even concealed this part of the story. Some of this was due to our not wanting to glamorize the use of guns in his young age. But also, how could we tell our son that a man that stood for such strong convictions of truth and peace was gunned down in violent death for those same beliefs? Pedagogically, we avoided this question.

How do we tell our children that James Baldwin was right? That before they were born civility was not something completely afforded to African-Americans. Indeed, was King’s death a random act of violence or simply part of longer American narrative of racism and anti-Black violence?

Well the truth is that by time King was murdered, civility had already left the room. America's most graphic period of incivility was punctuated by over two and half centuries of bondage for people of African descent. Most of the 20th century was riddled with a long, ongoing story of death and incivility in the form of lynching, segregation, police brutality and in the murderous incivility of four little girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carole Denise McNair who were brutally killed in a church bombing five years prior to King’s assassination.

The unfortunate part of these histories is that death and incivility has marched its way into the twenty first century. Concealing these recent events from our son have become more and more difficult. As he gets older he understands that something is not right about being black in America. Also when he looks at the picture of King on the ground, outside of his hotel room with men pointing upward, full of distress and fear in their faces; he knows that something was deadly wrong on April 10, 1968.  

Looking at the last five decades of sustained inequalities and violence directed toward African Americans, the narrative of incivility has remained incredibly durable over time. Perhaps in some sense, Baldwin mischaracterized the end of civility in civil rights with assassination of King, because prior to this history the killing of black leaders, protesters and even children had already become part of America’s story of incivility.

Our task as parents, teachers, and educators, then, is to tell the full story about American history. This includes what Baldwin also characterized as America’s most beautiful and terrible legacy. Racial violence, as found in assassination, lynching and police brutality are difficult histories to teach young people but we must scaffold ways to teach them about these histories that help them understand the value and magnitude of struggle and activism in the U.S.

Our children must understand that we owe a great debt to those that came before us, as they risked their lives so that we could enjoy a modicum of freedom. Yet this freedom is never guaranteed, particularly in a world still marred by anti-blackness. The struggle continues and we must remain vigilant to teach our children about America’s racial past, scars and all.

Anthony BrownAnthony Gregory BrownDem lawmaker: ‘Entirely inappropriate’ for Trump to talk politics during troop visit Overnight Defense: Almost half of border deployment sent home | Trump, Dems dig in as shutdown nears | Flynn associates charged over illegal lobbying Democrats with military background offer support for Pelosi MORE is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. Keffrelyn Brown is an associate professor of cultural studies in education at The University of Texas at Austin.