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Lessons I Never Learned in School: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Knew He Was Enough

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It is not lost on me that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered when he was only 39 years old. Before entering his fourth decade of life, he was shot down on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. To think that you could lead a life driven by love and social justice and be murdered is still a wild concept for me to fully embrace, which is why I don’t accept it. It’s much easier for me to maintain my optimism and radical hope this way.

[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in 1963]

Growing up in New York City public schools, I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the way most of my peers did, through the “I Have A Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. We would often watch a video of the speech, rarely studying the words. The line that we were told to study over and over again was “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The implication was that we were living this dream, although throughout my k-12 years, there were many teachers who could only see that I was an outspoken Black girl and my Blackness superseded my outspokenness, leading to unfair punishments. Yet, they were praising Dr. King’s non-violent strategies, while using oppressive teaching and learning practices structured by hierarchy and obedience. I think it is safe to say that many of my teachers knew of Dr. King but they failed to understand how to implement his practices into the classroom…

[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is sprawled across a police desk as his wife looks on. He was arrested while trying to attend a hearing for civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy and was released when his identity became known to the police. Montgomery, Ala., 1958]

The lessons that many of my teachers taught about Dr. King in k-12 were objective in nature, touting his activism like that of a “Good Negro” who worked well with white people. The messaging I received is what made Dr. King “acceptable” was his willingness to work with white people peacefully, to eradicate racism. His ability to connect with people across race, class and spirituality was in fact admirable and one of his many leadership skills. However, what was missing from the in-school narratives I grew so accustomed to over the years, was the fact that Dr. King loved Black people so much he was willing to die for their freedom. And that is exactly what happened. At the heart of Dr. King’s work is a commitment to Critical Race Theory (before its official development) and radical love through spiritual faith. A key aspect of his activism was fighting against the racism that continued to perpetuate housing inequality, health disparities and economic exploitation, expounded by segregation. Dr. King loved himself enough to know that he was (more than) enough to lead Black people to believe in something they could not yet see, such as helping to pass The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended separation by race in public spaces and promised equal job opportunities. This example of love out loud through critical strategies and radical relationship-building in the face of adversity is how we continue to change the world for the better.

It was not until I was in college and taking an African American History course that I began to read more of Dr. King’s other speeches and sermons. I suddenly became angry at the age of 20 when I realized what I was not taught at the age of 10: Dr. King was not a passive activist, he was a revolutionary and radical self-care activist who understood that he was enough!

Dr. King knew he was enough through his commitment to radical love and social justice-based community organizing. He believed in the long-term freedom that could come for Black people by advocating for an anti-racist world. Freeing Black people would free others and he was willing to die for it, which Dr. King noted, is a tenet of having deep faith, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963). There is one particular quote from that letter that stays with me, always. Every time I read these words, I am reminded of being unafraid of tension when leading social justice work because that is how we grow and create more freedom for ourselves and others in an oppressive world.

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth… to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham, AL jail, where he wrote his famous letter in 1963]

Knowing that we are enough requires a commitment to something other than ourselves, which may sound counterproductive, but hear me out. This commitment must be connected to our radical humanity. Ask yourselves questions such as:

  • How can I practice more compassion?

  • What are my privileges and how can I leverage my resources to help someone else?

  • What are some of my biases and how can I unlearn my racial and cultural misconceptions to connect with people outside of my comfort zone?

Centering these questions in your life on a daily basis will remind you of your strengths, vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Our connection to our humility instead of our egos allows us to build more authentic and trusting relationships with others, leading to deeper human connections.

Dr. King knew he was enough because he practiced civil disobedience in order to push against racist laws and systems that physically and psychologically harmed generations of Black and African American people. Radical change is possible when we speak up as a way of thinking about those coming after us. When we are committed to leaving the world better than we found it, we can all learn to love, protect and respect one another, with the understanding that the future of our collective humanity depends on it.

How do we know that we are enough? We can start by thinking of how we are unique in our own ways and how we contribute to the world every day through our actions, behaviors and thoughts. We all have something special to offer. Imagine if we viewed our contributions to society as an intentional way of honoring ourselves, our families and our communities. How would that change how we interact with one another? How we love ourselves and others?

Dr. King was not perfect; however, he knew who he was, and he understood his place in the world.

  • Do you know who you are?

  • What is your understanding of your place in the world?

Let’s continue to reflect on our various identities while leaning into the spaces where we have access to educate and inspire. While you’re doing that, check out the 20 books that inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

P.S. I turned 40 last year, an age Dr. King never got to experience…


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