6 Ways You Harm Me When You Appropriate Black Culture


6 Ways You Harm Me When You Appropriate Black Culture – And How to Appreciate It Instead

t is truly a bizarre experience to be a Black nerd in the US.

Black culture is supposed to be the epitome of “cool” – the music, the fashion, and the swagger all set popular trends. And yet, I’m just over here hoping my friends don’t ask for the latest Fetty Wap lyrics because I’m likely to hit ’em with a James Baldwin quote and hope they don’t notice.

Meanwhile, society cuts and commercializes pieces of Black culture for white consumption. 

It’s one of the most pervasive forms of cultural appropriation, when other people take elements of traditionally Black culture without knowledge of or respect for what it means to Black folks. 

I’m focusing especially on when white folks appropriate – not because I think you all are the only ones capable of causing harm, but because the United States is dominated by a system of white supremacy that gives white people institutional power over Black people.

Which means it’s crucial to think about context if you’re a white person who wants to borrow something from Black culture.

If you mean to appreciate part of Black culture, that has to include learning about the history of what you’re appreciating, and about the struggles and achievements of the people you’re borrowing from. Then you’ll be the kind of ally who’s informed enough to honor our culture in a way that supports us – instead of just taking what you like and hurting our community.

A lot of white folks who appropriate Black culture don’t mean to be racist – and I wish your intention was enough to guarantee that you wouldn’t hurt people of color. 

But we’ve got all this context to consider. It’s the context that makes a difference in whether you’re causing harm or not.

In this case, context includes an oppressive system, white supremacy, which operates invisibly so we all contribute to it without being aware of the harm we’re causing.

Just think of how common it is for white people in the US to make music, talk, and dress in ways influenced by Black culture.

Many of you probably haven’t stopped to think about how your actions affect Black people because the status quo encourages you to explore what you find interesting, to take the clothes and music you’re drawn to and make it part of your life – without thinking about the consequences your choices and actions might have on the marginalized groups who created that thing you’ve claimed for yourself.

So it makes sense if you’ve appropriated Black culture without realizing that you’re contributing to white supremacy. But once you learn about what cultural appropriation does to us Black people, it’s time to do something about it.

That’s why I want to explain how appropriation feels to me, and give you some tools for appreciating my culture without putting me down.

The short version is that having white people call parts of my culture cool doesn’t make me feel cool. But being “cool” doesn’t even scratch the surface – as a Black woman, I’m under pressure to change who I am so that I come across as professional, as loveable, hell, even as something more than disposable.

So with that context in mind, here’s how I feel when white people appropriate my culture.

1. I Feel Mocked

Last year, an old college acquaintance added me on Facebook. Like you do with a social media reconnect, I scanned her photos for updates, and most of them reflected her life as an upper middle class white woman living in a wealthy suburb. 

But I stopped scrolling at one picture.

She stood in front of a graffitied wall, bulging her eyes out, scrunching her mouth, and holding two fingers sideways. A red handkerchief pushed her blond hair back from her forehead.

The caption read: “When I went GHETTO!” She and her white friends filled the comments with jokes about her gangsta status.

She didn’t name Black culture, but when you’re living with the context I’m living with, you can’t help but take it personally when someone imitates an image that popular culture associates with Blackness.

What they see as a harmless joke – laughing at the idea of being “ghetto” – makes light of real people’s difficult living conditions. They took a distorted snapshot of what it means to be poor and Black and made a mockery of it. 

The graffiti in the background reminded me of the inspiring young artists creating art on walls to transform their neighborhoods into canvases, build their sense of identity, and disrupt the dominant society’s oppressive social codes.

Graffiti is a vital form of self-expression for some Black youth – but they’re routinely criminalized for it, which is no joke for them.

The look on the woman’s face made me think about Black folks mean-mugging the camera to show confidence and strength.

And her handkerchief reminded me that a Black person who dressed and posed like she did would be judged as nothing more than a dangerous gang member. 

I thought about how the media shows the people she was imitating – as thugs, as one-dimensional characters, as threats to your family – but not as fully human. 

She thought it was okay to mock poor Black people’s struggles because she’s convinced they’re not worth caring about.

That terrifies me.

2. I Feel Othered

Have you heard about Thug Kitchen? It’s a hugely successful blog, now turned into a book, which features healthy, vegan recipes written in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) – with phrases like “eat like you give a fuck.” 

At first, it seemed like a hilarious way to make healthy food accessible to Black city-dwellers who can’t usually get the nutrients they need.

But do you know who’s behind Thug Kitchen? Last year, the creators revealed their identities: They’re a white man and woman.

Suddenly, it feels like the joke’s on us. Their white fans were laughing not with Black folks, but at us – at the absurdity of speaking like a stereotypical thug about food they considered “normal.”

This is an example of how whiteness is considered the norm – if these people had shared the same recipes in their own way of speaking, it would’ve been an ordinary recipe blog.

But they added something “special” – a dialect they borrowed from another culture, which helped them gain attention and profit.

If the creator had been a young Black man who really spoke like the Thug Kitchen persona, he would have had to code-switch in business deals to avoid being stereotyped by people like book publishers and Gwenyth Paltrow’s staff.

He probably would’ve had to keep his hair cut short, and avoid any traditionally Black styleslike cornrows or dreadlocks. And still, even if he bought the best suit he could afford, he might have run into people who judged him as lazy or incompetent just because of the color of his skin.

When it benefits them, the creators of Thug Kitchen can adopt an exaggerated version of AAVE – which was developed to help Black people resist and survive oppression.

But when they need to, they can drop the act and access opportunities they only get thanks to white privilege. 

In other words, they exploit my culture for profit, but don’t have to face the oppression that comes with actually being Black. 

And they get to maintain their culture as the norm, while treating elements of Black culture as trivial things to play with.

3. My Struggle to Be Affirmed Feels Trivialized

Being a Black woman in this country comes with a daily struggle to affirm who I am.

For example, I’ve been under pressure to straighten my hair since the day I was born. Many jobs ban natural Black hairstyles, and natural hair is nearly invisible in the media, sending the message that my hair’s texture is unappealing.

So these days, when I wear my hair in its natural state, it’s not just my personal preference – it’s also a risk I’m taking to fight for appreciation as I am, without conforming to a Eurocentric standard of beauty.

For the past year, I’ve been wearing Senegalese and Marley twists on and off. They’re examples of what Black women call protective styles – styles that help maintain my natural hair.

“Protective” is a fitting description, because my twists also protect my natural look while I take care of my afro – I still get to look like myself.

And I really like how I look – the first time I put Senegalese twists in, I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the mirror. 

I should be embarrassed to admit that. But if you had any idea how rarely I’ve thought positive thoughts about my reflection, you’d know that admiring myself is a revolutionary thing.

But now the mainstream media has found Senegalese twists, and their image doesn’t look like my reflection. Teen Vogue featured them as a new trend with a spread showing only white and fair-skinned models.

This is such a common pattern of cultural appropriation: Black folks struggle for affirmation, then develop tools to resist anti-Blackness, only to have white folks claim those tools as their own and erase the significance.

Many readers of Teen Vogue have been introduced to Senegalese twists as a style for white women, without learning about what they mean for women like me after a lifetime of learning to love my hair.

I’ve heard the objections to my sensitivity about this: “It’s just hair.” 

When you say that, you shrug off my struggles as if they don’t matter at all.

4. It Undermines the True Meaning of My Culture’s Components

Love of hip-hop isn’t limited to Black folks. People of all backgrounds have come to love the music and style this genre introduced to the world. 

But not everyone who enjoys hip-hop connects with its meaning – or even knows how it originated. Do you know how hip-hop started?

It began as an outlet for urban Black youth to express themselves and release stress from the poverty and violence of inner city life.

Since the beginning, Black hip-hop artists and fans have been regarded by mainstream culture as thugs, not real artists or consumers worth paying attention to.

But hip-hop has survived. 

Black artists create studios and put the power of resistance in their rhymes. They continue embracing hip-hop culture – even when it costs them mainstream success – and bravely defy the common idea that the way they dress and speak makes them less valuable

In many ways, the story of hip-hop reflects the struggle and resilience of Black American life itself. It shows that even those who suffer the most at the intersections of economic and racial injustice can create amazing things that help them survive.

And that story – not just a sick beat – is what resonates with so many Black folks about hip-hop.

Mainstream record labels and audiences have stopped ignoring hip-hop. These days, they exchange billions of dollars for the music of white artists like Iggy Azalea and Macklemore, who dominate hip-hop categories at music awards shows.

There’s nothing wrong with being a white person who appreciates hip-hop. But without appreciating what hip-hop really means, you’re just appropriating.

Here’s the situation: Black entertainers are still struggling to find success. 

While they struggle, studios package hip-hop for mainstream white comfort by removing everything that’s meaningful about it for Black communities. And removing everything that represents actual Blackness, not just a costume of it.

It’s so discouraging for Black culture to be popular only when Black folks are removed from the equation.

5. Society Values a White Person More for Doing the Same Things I Do

As these examples show, a white person who listens to hip-hop, uses AAVE, or wears traditionally Black hairstyles still benefits from white privilege, while I’d be treated poorly if I did the same. 

Pop culture provides endless examples of this double standard. For instance, celebrities with dark skin are rarely seen as attractive like white and fair-skinned celebrities.

That’s why dark-skinned women everywhere celebrate the success and visibility of Viola Davis– a gorgeous, dark-skinned actress with natural hair.

Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that the celebration was soured when New York Times critic called Davis “less than classically beautiful.”

It’s no surprise that an announcement for the Ghostbusters reboot cast showed three white women in full makeup and awards show gowns, with the only Black actress, Leslie Jones, in a much less flattering pose.

And it’s no surprise that when teenagers jumped on a trend to plump their lips with glass jars and bottles (with some resulting in injury), they weren’t idolizing a Black woman like Leslie Jones, who has naturally full lips. 

They were trying to look like white model Kylie Jenner, who achieved her look with cosmetic surgery.

White people can adopt elements of Black looks and still be treated with dignity – be treated as hot trend-setters, even.

This double standard shows that a hierarchy of skin color is alive and well in our society. People will always assign me less value because of the color of my skin.

6. It Ignores the Racism My Community Is Dealing With

Have I mentioned that cultural appropriation makes me feel like I’m living in a bizarro world?

Black folks are treated like we’re disposable all the time. We’re ignored and stereotyped in the media, thrown in jail and killed by police at terrifying rates, and many white people refuse to even say “Black Lives Matter” or acknowledge that racism is a problem.

And at the same time, white people want to be able to do what we do if they deem it “cool.”

For instance, Tom Hanks’ son Chet recently defended his right to say the n-word, saying “no one can tell me what I can’t say.”

Many white people argue that because some Black people use the word with each other, white folks should be free to do the same.

Maybe you wouldn’t think to use the n-word, but you also believe that you, as a white person, shouldn’t be forbidden from doing anything because of the color of your skin. If we’re living in a “post-racial” world that strives for equality, then how is it fair that I can use that word and you can’t?

The key to that question is the fact that we’re still striving for equality – we’re not there yet.

The n-word’s horrific history still haunts us, and it’s still used today by people like white supremacists responsible for more than half of the US’s domestic terror murders.

The n-word is still terrifying to Black folks when it’s used by white people.

When white people emulate the way some Black people have reclaimed this word to stand up to its terror, they dismiss the reality of our country’s violent racism.

Your actions matter – you can contribute to racism by pretending all things are equal and acting on your privilege, or you can recognize your own contributions and put a stop to them.

What to Do Instead

If you still feel like my culture’s the epitome of cool and you’d like to appreciate it, I won’t turn down the compliment. And yes, it’s possible to appreciate Black culture without causing harm through appropriation.

But if you’re just going to take what you like without taking the time to understand it, then you’re appropriating, not appreciating.

Here are three steps to showing respectful appreciation: 

Step 1: Learn What It Means to Be an Ally to the Black Community

Before asking “Can I borrow this?” try asking “How can I support you?” Because you can’t show appreciation without the action to back it up

Don’t just try to gain personal benefit from Black styles without fighting the injustice that strikes Black people’s lives.

Being a supportive ally means listening to us and learning about our strugglesWhich also means you’ll learn about the double standards, stereotypes, and discrimination working against the Black community.

And you’ll have a much easier time figuring out which elements of Black culture are just off-limits, and how to adopt other things without causing harm.

Being an ally is an ongoing process, so stay open to learning.

Step 2: Listen to People of Color Sharing Their Experiences with Racism and the Impact of Cultural Appropriation

You’ll be a pro at listening once you get some practice taking action as an ally. But I can’t stress enough how important it is to make a habit of this.

Because getting defensive about cultural appropriation or saying Black folks are just being oversensitive sends a clear message about how much you value Black lives.

You’re saying your “freedom” to do what you want trumps our experiences with racist attempts to erase our culture and dehumanize us.

Sometimes it’s going to be hard for you to understand. There are many times when white people don’t see the harm in what they’re doing, simply because they’ve never been a Black person in the US so they don’t have to live with the impact. 

Trust that Black people can speak for ourselves about the impact of racism – and being an ally means centering our voices, not speaking over us about what you think is offensive or not. 

Step 3: Apply Context to What You’re Doing

Figuring out the difference between appropriation and appreciation can get super confusing, because there are very few rules that apply to every situation.

So I understand if you have questions, like: What if I grew up around Black people? What if Black people compliment me on this? What if I’m not white, but biracial?

Asking questions is a great way to figure it out – because the key is applying context. 

Do some research.

Find out about the origins of what you’re borrowing, and if it’s possible to honor its meaning as a white person. If you’re a biracial person with white passing privilege, reflect on what it would mean for you to be read as a white person benefiting from this aspect of Black culture.

Perhaps most importantly, think about the impact of what you’re doing.

If you’re doing this out of appreciation for Black culture, then are you giving us support or trivializing our struggles?

If you’re doing this for your own self-expression, are you expressing yourself in a way that contributes to the oppression of Black people?

Keep in mind that it’s not just about you – nothing you do is separate from the broader system of white supremacy, no matter how pure your intentions.


My Blackness isn’t only skin deep, and it’s not just hair or clothes or music that make me me. It’s not as if Black folks all have one monolithic style we can claim to own.

But the various ingredients of my unique Black identity are more important to me than words can even say.

I’m flattered if you think these things are cool, and I appreciate you for hearing me out about how it feels when they’re appropriated. I hope I’ve given you some ideas on appreciating my culture without adding to my struggle.


Why America needs a slavery museum, Watch

Why America Needs a Slavery Museum

Why America needs a slavery museum: “The history of this country is rooted in slavery. If you don’t understand the source of the problem, how can you solve it?”

Posted by The Atlantic on Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why America needs a slavery museum: “The history of this country is rooted in slavery. If you don’t understand the source of the problem, how can you solve it?”

Will Black Millennials Dance With the ‘Party of Our Parents’?


Will Black Millennials Dance With the ‘Party of Our Parents’? For young African Americans, an automatic vote for the Democratic Party is not guaranteed.

For young African Americans, an automatic vote for the Democratic Party is not guaranteed.

“Tamir Rice was 12 years old. He was murdered outside for using his imagination.”

The day after the announcement that there would be no indictment of the police officer who killed the Cleveland boy, with tweets and think pieces sprouting out of our nation’s racial woodwork, those words from Mississippi-born writer Kiese Laymon arrested me. With tear-filled eyes and a rage-filled heart, I tried—yet again—to make sense of America’s merciless plague of black death. I couldn’t. I still can’t. I mean, how much sense can we make of it, when black children can’t play outside without fear of losing their lives at the hands of those sworn to protect them?

“Until the killing of … black mothers’ sons becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son,” Ella Baker proclaimed in 1964, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

It’s winter in America, but the political climate is sweltering. Politicians are sweating under the heat of organized protests, while many activists are fighting the fatigue that comes with resisting institutionalized racism. Yet, today’s freedom fighters refuse to rest—from Ferguson to Yale, from Mizzou to Baltimore.

As the 2016 election draws near, the energy of Black Lives Matter is center stage. The Democratic Party is hustling to secure the black vote; black millennials are an important demographic.

“If blacks’ support of Democrats drops from the highs of President Obama’s 93 and 95 percent showings back to the historical average of 85 percent, it could cost Democrats a net of 2.8 million votes,” Donovan Ramsey wrote in a recent New York Times article.

Clearly, Democrats can’t afford the cost of losing black voters. But can black millennials afford the consequences of dancing with the “party of our parents”?

I came of age in the ’90s under the first “first black president”: Bill Clinton. I vividly remember church deacons praising him over Easter dinner, just moments after praising God. President Clinton is “on our side,” I was told, just as God was. But was he? According to political scientist Naomi Murakawa, policies under his leadership established mandatory sentencing minimums, expanded the federal death penalty and gave billions of dollars to local police departments—helping to establish what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.” To be sure, Clinton’s 1994 “Three Strikes, You’re Out” federal crime bill, alongside his 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—which ended “welfare as we know it”—helped replace an imperfect safety net with an insidious carceral network.

Clinton wasn’t our messiah after all. He was, however, our John the Baptist: preparing the way for black millennials’ uncritical embrace of the Democratic Party and its “true savior,” Barack Obama. A messianic figure with a Midwestern tongue, Obama evangelized the nation with his own set of parables about personal responsibility and the so-called American dream, couched in a brilliant campaign about “hope” and “change.” But as his second term comes to an end, that hope is eclipsed by the hellish conditions of black America—from underemployment and over-incarceration to generational poverty and police brutality. Truth is: since 2008, America has seen more corpses than “change.”

Despite the failures of Democratic politicians, black and white alike, black millennials are expected to subscribe to a stale civil rights narrative. It goes something like this: “Your ancestors couldn’t vote; they fought and died so we could vote; so get out there and vote!” Yes, voting has long been a tool within the black freedom struggle in the United States. But what does it mean for Tamir to be the target of police bullets as black millennials become the targets of the Democratic Party?

It means that our votes matter, but our lives don’t.

Our ancestors didn’t die so Tamir could vote. They died so he could live. So he could play outside without being killed by police. Herein lies the irony and tragedy of American democracy: Tamir, once 18, could have voted. But that day will never come, because unfortunately it’s still against the laws of white supremacy to be black and outside the comfort zone of white people. The ballot has its benefits, but it’s not bulletproof.

When I was barely Tamir’s age, I was already conditioned to pledge allegiance to the Democratic Party. “Those were the good ol’ days,” some of those same deacons tell me to this day. This form of political engagement is misleading. It embraces stories about politicians’ personalities that fail to say a mumbling word about their actual policies. Style replaces substance. The Nae Nae so easily obscures the numbers. Barbershop talks so easily block our view of the brothers who frequent them, many of whom are trapped within a vicious circle of joblessness and jail. And by the time we see the bigger picture, the paint has already dried—our schools closed, neighborhoods gentrified and communities left with little hope.

Perhaps the Democratic Party engages black millennials in a similar way to how those cops engaged Tamir: by “murdering” our imaginations, as Laymon wrote, for simply being black and outside. That is, black and “outside” the boundaries of a particular, respectable, nonviolent, civil-rights-oriented, “What would Jesse or Al do?” style of politics. This dance between black America and the Democratic Party is designed to keep black millennials inside, on the dance floor of national elections, and outside, off the playing field of radical politics. It arrests our history of resistance, shoots down our freedom dreams, and ultimately assassinates the radical imagination necessary for our liberation.

Black millennials can’t afford to dance to the beat of the Democratic Party’s drum. Theirs is a broken record of empty rhetoric and broken promises. If we, “too, sing America!” as Langston Hughes proclaimed in 1945, then—in 2016—black millennials must sing a new song. Not only in the national election, but in the day to day struggle of black political life. Who will be the drum majors of our freedom struggle?

The answer isn’t in the collective chorus of our “daddy’s civil rights movement” or the reactionary refrain of our mama’s Democratic Party. It’s in us.

Nyle Fort is a minister, organizer and scholar based in Newark, N.J. He is currently a Ph.D. student in religion and African-American studies at Princeton University.


Lord, Lord, Why did You make me Black?


Lord, Lord,
Why did You make me Black?
Why did You make me someone
The world wants to hold back?

Black is the color of dirty clothes;
The color of grimy hands and feet.
Black is the color of darkness;
The color of tire-beaten streets.

Why did you give me thick lips,
A broad nose and kinky hair?
Why did You make me someone
Who receives the hatred stare?

Black is the color of a bruised eye
When somebody gets hurt.
Black is the color of darkness.
Black is the color of dirt.
How come my bone structure’s so thick;
my hips and cheeks are high?
How come my eyes are brown
and not the color of the daylight sky?

Why do people think I’m useless?
How come I feel so used?
Why do some people see my skin and think I should be abused?

Lord, I just don’t understand;
What is it about my skin?
Why do some people want to hate me
And not know the person within?

Black is what people are “listed”,
When others want to keep them away.
Black is the color of shadows cast.
Black is the end of the day.

Lord, You know, my own people mistreat me;
And I know this just isn’t right.
They don’t like my hair or the way I look
They say I’m too dark or too light.

Lord, Don’t You think it’s time
For You to make a change?
Why don’t You re-do creation
And make everyone the same?

(God answered)

Why did I make you black?
Why did I make you black?

Get off your knees and look around.
Tell Me, what do you see?
I didn’t make you in the image of darkness.
I made you in the Likeness of ME!

I made you the color of coal
From which beautiful diamonds are formed.
I made you the color of oil,
The black-gold that keeps people warm.

I made you from the rich, dark earth
That can grow the food you need.
Your color’s the same as the panther’s
Known for (HER) beauty and speed.

Your color’s the same as the Black stallion,
A majestic animal is he.
I didn’t make you in the Image of darkness
I made you in the Likeness of Me!

All the colors of a Heavenly Rainbow
Can be found throughout every nation;
And when all those colors were blended well,

Your hair is the texture of lamb’s wool
Such a humble, little creature is he.
I am the Shepherd who watches them.
I am the One who will watch over thee.

You are the color of midnight-sky,
I put the stars’ glitter in your eyes.
There’s a smile hidden behind your pain
That’s the reason your cheeks are high.

You are the color of dark clouds formed
when I send My strongest weather.
I made your lips full so when you kiss
the one you love they will remember.

Your stature is strong; your bone structure, thick
to withstand the burdens of time.
The reflection you see in the mirror…
The Image looking back at you is MINE!

-by RuNett Nia Ebo

poetMeet Poet Ebo: Presenting RuNett Nia Ebo. Some of her fellow poets call her one of the most bootlegged poet in the USA!

RuNett Nia Ebo, also known as Poet Ebo is a local resident of NW Philadelphia and married to William Gray. She has been writing since age 10 (which means over 5 decades).  She has self-published 7 chapbooks, 2 books of poetry, one CD and one fiction story, All For You.  Her most recognized poem, “Lord, Why Did You Make Me Black?” © 1994, is also her contribution to Chicken Soup for the African-American Soul © 2004.  Recently, she collaborated with eight other senior poets to write the anthology, “Seniors Rockin’ The Pen © 2014.

In 1998, along with her brother, Darien and the late musician, Keno Speller, she established Nia’s Purpose: Poetry and Percussion @ Work.  The trio used this vehicle to visit schools and community centers to share poetry, percussion and Black History with audiences of all ages.

She can add playwright to her list of accomplishments since a play she wrote based on her signature poem was recently performed by the Fresh Visions Youth Theatre Group.

In addition to other awards received over the years, she was recently presented with The 2014 Philadelphia Black Poetry Honors for over 20 years of Poetic Excellence by Poetic Ventures and The Black Authors Tour (May) and was given the Golden Mic Award by World Renowned Entertainment (June).

Poet Ebo also created POET-IFY: Poetry to Edify (2006), a poetry venue she co-hosts bi-monthly from Feb. to Oct. with her Partner In Rhyme, Victoria Peurifoy. They are currently working on a poetry book together.

The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks: An Analysis of Representations of Martin Luther King, Jr.


In this study, I argue that American history textbooks present discrete, heroic, one- dimensional, and neatly packaged master narratives that deny students a complex, realistic, and rich understanding of people and events in American history. In mak- ing this argument, I examine the master narratives of Martin Luther King, Jr., in high school history textbooks and show how textbooks present prescribed, oversimpli- fied, and uncontroversial narratives of King that obscure important elements in King’s life and thought. Such master narratives, I contend, permeate most history textbooks and deny students critical lenses through which to examine, analyze, and interpret social issues today. The article concludes with suggestions about how teachers might begin to address the current problem of master narratives and offer alternative approaches to presenting U.S. history.

During my years as a high school history teacher in the early 1990s, I observed the extent to which history textbooks often presented simplistic, one-dimensional interpretations of American history within a heroic and celebratory master narrative.1 The ideas and representations in textbooks presented a teleological progression from ‘‘great men’’ to ‘‘great events,’’ usually focusing on an idealistic evolution toward American democracy. Reflecting on these years, I also remember how heavily teachers relied on these textbooks, consequently denying students an accurate picture of the complexity and richness of American history.

U.S. history courses and curricula are dominated by such heroic and celebratory master narratives as those portraying George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as the heroic ‘‘Founding Fathers,’’ Abraham Lincoln as the ‘‘Great Emancipator,’’ and Martin Luther King, Jr., as the messianic savior of African Americans. Often these figures are portrayed in isolation from other individuals and events in their historical context. At the same time, the more controversial aspects of their lives and beliefs are left out of many history textbooks. The result is that students often are exposed to simplistic, one-dimensional, and truncated portraits that deny them a re- alistic and multifaceted picture of American history. In this way, such texts and curricula undermine a key purpose of learning history in the first place: History should provide students with an understanding of the com- plexities, contradictions, and nuances in American history, and knowledge of its triumphs and strengths.2

In his highly regarded book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen argued that ‘‘Textbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and to indoctrinate blind patriotism’’ and that history is usually presented as ‘‘facts to be learned,’’ free of controversy and contradictions between American ideals and practice. According to Loewen, the simplistic and doctrinaire content in most history textbooks contributes to student boredom and fails to challenge students to think about the relationship of history to contem- porary social affairs and life.3

Loewen’s argument is not new. In 1935, historian W. E. B. Du Bois also noted the tendency of textbooks to promote certain master narratives while leaving out differing or controversial information about historical figures and events. As an example, Du Bois noted,

One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The dif- ficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.4

The dominance of master narratives in textbooks denies students a com- plicated, complex, and nuanced portrait of American history. As a result, students often receive information that is inaccurate, simplistic, and dis- connected from the realities of contemporary local, national, and world affairs. When master narratives dominate history textbooks, students find history boring, predictable, or irrelevant. If we continue on this course of presenting history to students, we risk producing a generation that does not understand its history or the connection of that history to the contemporary world. We also deny students access to relevant, dynamic, and often con- troversial history or critical lenses that would provide them insight into the dilemmas, challenges, and realities of living in a democratic society such as the United States.

MLK_mugshot_birminghamIn this article, I examine how textbooks present heroic, uncritical, and celebratory master narratives of history. In doing so, I illustrate the master narratives that history textbooks present of one of America’s most heroic icons, Martin Luther King, Jr. I illuminate how high school history text- books promote King through three master narratives: King as a messiah, King as the embodiment of the civil rights movement, and King as a mod- erate. Having shown how textbook master narratives portray King, I con- clude by suggesting how teachers might move beyond the limitations of these narratives to offer students a more complex, accurate, and realistic view of figures and events in American history.5

Literary analysis, a primary method in intellectual history, is the main methodological approach used for this study. According to historian Ri- chard Beringer, literary analysis ‘‘involves reading source material and drawing evidence from that material to be used in supporting a point of view or thesis.’’6 In most cases, such source material includes poetry, novels, or short stories, but it may also include nonfictional material. Beringer presents a straightforward approach to conducting literary analysis: (1) read the literature, (2) note the themes, (3) discuss the themes, and (4) support your conclusion by example. In this study, high school history textbooks serve as the source material. The focal point of this investigation is the representation of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the textbooks. King was cho- sen as a subject of analysis because he is a widely recognized figure in American history whose image has come to epitomize ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom in America.

To explore how contemporary textbooks represent King, I examine six popular and widely adopted American history textbooks: The American Pageant (2002) by Thomas A. Bailey, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Co- hen; American Odyssey: The United States in the 20th Century (2004) by Gary B. Nash; America: Pathways to the Present (2005) by Andrew Cayton, Linda Reed, Elisabeth Perry, and Allan M. Winkler; The Americans (2005) by Gerald A. Danzer et al.; The American Nation: A History of the United States (2003) by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes; and The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society (2004) by Gary B. Nash, Julie Jeffrey, et al.7

According to the American Textbook Council, America: Pathways to the Present, American Odyssey, and The Americans are widely used in American high schools. Other textbook studies cite The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society as a popular textbook. I chose The American Nation because of its focus on political history and because it is a ‘‘bestseller’’ for Allyn & Bacon. The American Pageant has long been a popular textbook for

high-level and advanced placement students in high school.8 In addition, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation cited The American Nation, America: Pathways to the Present, American Odyssey, and The Americans as four widely used textbooks in U.S. schools.9

Highly respected historians wrote the textbooks examined in this study, and the information in them likely represents a broad spectrum of the ideas that are being conveyed about King in American classrooms.10 Further- more, historian Van Gosse, who has conducted studies on American history textbooks, stated that textbooks are ‘‘remarkably similar in what is and what is not included; how an incident, person, or occasion is described; and in the sequence used to establish relationships among events.’’11 Gosse’s as- sertion about the similarity of content among history textbooks supports my claim that these six textbooks may be considered representative of a much larger selection of high school history texts.



One way that textbooks package information for students is through the presentation of messianic master narratives. A messianic master narrative highlights one exceptional individual as the progenitor of a movement, a leader who rose to lead a people. The idea of messianism has long been a part of American culture and religion. Rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition and beliefs, the concept of a deliverer coming to Earth to free the masses from evil or oppression has been very appealing to Americans because of the predominance of Judeo-Christian beliefs and traditions in the United States.12

Perhaps more than any other figure in American history, the preacher has historically and symbolically been viewed as a messianic figure in the African American community. Historian John Blassingame traced this phe- nomenon to the institution of slavery, noting, ‘‘The Black preacher had special oratorical skills and was master of the vivid phrase, folk poetry, and picturesque words.’’13 Given the resonance of preachers as messianic fig- ures, it is understandable that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., evoked a messianic image during his lifetime, one that the media and textbook pub- lishers continue to promote today.14

King understood the power of symbolism and metaphor and purpose- fully evoked messianic imagery and symbolism in placing the struggle of African Americans within the context of biblical narratives. During his childhood in the 1930s and 1940s, young King came under the influence of his minister father, Daddy King, in Ebenezer Baptist Church, and many other great preachers throughout the South. These men influenced him with the biblical style of storytelling. The preaching that King was exposed to as a child was only one to two generations removed from the ‘‘slave preaching’’ that black Americans heard during slavery, which was full of the passion and pain of a people in bondage.15 King studied and practiced the language, mannerisms, and locution of the black preachers and began to reconfigure the religious metaphors and symbols for the struggles of his generation.16

King’s use of biblical language and imagery in both the spoken and written word also promoted a messianic tone and message that was ap- pealing to a predominantly Christian nation such as United States during the 1950s and 1960s. His merger of messianic and patriotic symbolism appealed to America’s patriotic sensibilities and its dominant Christian de- mography. King, like many political and religious leaders before and after him, understood the power of transcending racial ideological barriers by attempting to unify people under American and Judeo-Christian symbol- ism.17 His references to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Con- stitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and a ‘‘promissory note,’’ juxtaposed with biblical references to ‘‘trials and tribulations,’’ ‘‘brother- hood,’’ and valleys, hills, and ‘‘crooked places’’ helped illuminate the images of Moses and the Exodus, Abraham Lincoln, and the Founders.

Given many historians’ focus on King as the central figure in the civil rights movement, it is understandable that messianic symbolism continues to be associated with King. For example, the titles of some of the most popular books on King allude to messianic metaphor and symbolism. They include David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross; Stephen Oates’s Let the Trumpet Sound; Taylor Branch’s trilogy Parting the Waters, A Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge; and Michael Dyson’s I May Not Get There with You.18

(L-R) Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sit pensively after communicating with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy while they await protection from the gathered mob outside the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Paul Schutzer/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

(L-R) Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sit pensively after communicating with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy while they await protection from the gathered mob outside the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Paul Schutzer/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

History textbooks today also use messianic symbolism in portraying King as a messiah or ‘‘deliverer’’ during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Bir- mingham campaign, and the March on Washington, and on the day before King was killed. For instance, four of the six textbooks portray King as an ‘‘unlikely champion’’ who would lead his people to the ‘‘promised land’’ during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The unlikely champion reference parallels Judeo-Christian stories of Moses, the unlikely deliverer who was the son of an Egyptian pharaoh, and Jesus, the unlikely deliverer who was the son of a humble carpenter. The American Pageant, for example, states, ‘‘barely twenty-seven years old, King seemed an unlikely champion of the downtrodden and disenfranchised.’’ The American Odyssey says of King, ‘‘short in stature and gentle in manner, King was at the time only 27 years old.’’ The four texts referred to above also emphasize King’s youth or his privileged background as attributes that made him an ‘‘unlikely deliverer’’ of the Montgomery Movement.19

Three of the six textbooks identify King’s December 5, 1955, speech at Holt Street Baptist Church as a significant event during the boycott.20 The emphasis on this particular speech further reinforces the focus on King as a messiah, because the speech is replete with symbolic messianic messages and metaphors of a young, unlikely but charismatic savior. American Odyssey provides the most extensive coverage of the speech, including a picture of King delivering the speech, and quotes the following passage:

There comes a time when people get tired. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired—tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression . . . If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, in the history books that are written in future generations, historians will have to pause and say ‘‘there lived a great people—a black people—who injected a new meaning and dig- nity into the veins of civilization.’’ This is our challenge and our over- whelming responsibility.21

King’s words reflected that of a young messiah trying to persuade his oppressed people to endure their trials and tribulations in the short term because their cause was just and because they could expect a better future. Such portrayals evoke the imagery of Jesus and Moses leading the masses and encouraging their people to endure temporary hardships for the long- term benefits of reaching paradise or the ‘‘promised land.’’

Like many of King’s speeches, the Holt Street speech shows King in the messianic mission of delivering ‘‘God-inspired’’ words to the masses. Amer- ica: Pathways, The Americans, and The American People also quote from this speech, reinforcing King’s strong words pertaining to Christian love and the liberation of the masses from the ‘‘brutal feet of oppression.’’ The Amer- icans provides a block quotation from the speech and further reiterates its messianic symbolism, stating that ‘‘the impact of King’s speech—the rhythm of his words, the power of his rising and falling voice—brought people to their feet.’’22 The textbooks’ focus on a ‘‘messianic King,’’ even during his early life, denies students an opportunity to see King as a real person and as a young man who develops into a leader over time. Students also lose the opportunity to study the community leadership in Birmingham before King and to learn about the many ordinary citizens, whom King called his ‘‘foot soldiers,’’ who also played significant roles in the civil rights move- ment.

All the textbooks that I examined also promote messianic imagery in their presentations of the Birmingham campaign and the 1963 March on Washington. For instance, most of the textbooks evoke messianic symbolism of the apostle Paul’s letters to the masses by printing, in part, King’s ex- planations to Christian ministers for breaking segregation laws and advo- cating for social justice. American Odyssey, for example, uses messianic symbolism by preceding King’s ‘‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’’ with the

following statement: ‘‘Representing the opposition was King, who timed the demonstrations to include his arrest on Good Friday, the Christian holy day marking the death of Jesus.’’23 Three other textbooks also provide block quotations from King’s ‘‘Birmingham Letter.’’ America: Pathways sets up its section about the Birmingham Letter and campaign by discussing King’s answer to a reporter who questioned him about how long he would stay in Birmingham. America: Pathways states that King ‘‘drew on a biblical story and told them he would remain until ‘Pharaoh lets God’s people go.’ ’’24

While The American Pageant and The American People both discuss the Birmingham campaign, neither mentions King’s letter. However, they more than compensate for their minimal messianic symbolism of King in Bir- mingham with their overly messianic portrayals of King at the March on Washington. The American Pageant and The American People further illumi- nate this imagery by providing a color picture of King waving before the multitude of people. The textbook images of King are reminiscent of Hol- lywood portrayals of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus is often portrayed with outstretched arms before a multitude of his followers.25

America: Pathways quotes extensively from the ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech and provides messianic symbolism by featuring a photo of a long proces- sional of marchers, also symbolic of the crowds that gathered to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. American Odyssey, The Americans, and The American Nation discuss and highlight the March on Washington to a lesser extent but still evoke similar examples of symbolism and imagery. However, The Amer- ican Nation largely resists the more flowery or symbolic messianic language of the other texts.

Most of the textbooks address the last two major campaigns of King’s life—the march to Selma and his final days in Memphis. In all cases, the authors continue a type of messianic passion play, concluding with King’s famous ‘‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’’ speech. The Selma campaign was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to further heighten the national intensity of the movement and to help push the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress. American Odyssey provides a half-page black-and-white photo of a long processional of people marching from over the horizon, approaching from the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma on the way to the state capital of Montgomery, Alabama.26 This may easily be seen as symbolic of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

All the texts that mention the Selma march deliver an Exodus-type nar- rative in which King’s last ‘‘plague,’’ the march, eventually forced a ‘‘Pharonic’’ President Johnson to push for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Moreover, the authors of America: Pathways believed that John- son’s use of the language and symbolism of the civil rights movement was so important that they quoted a passage from a speech given by the president

shortly after the Selma march. America: Pathways quotes Johnson’s use of the civil rights anthem: ‘‘And . . . we . . . shall . . . overcome.’’27 Like the biblical pharaoh who eventually acknowledged the Hebrew God in the Exodus, The Americans’ portrayal of Johnson’s co-option of ‘‘We shall overcome’’ con- jures up the messianic story of Moses in the Exodus and parallels Pharaoh Rameses’s acknowledgement of the power of Moses’ God—in this case, the momentum and energy of the civil rights movement.

Another symbolic messianic moment that four of the six textbooks present is King’s legendary ‘‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’’ speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. The Americans, America: Pathways, The American People, and American Odyssey provide quotations from this final speech, delivered while King was in Memphis helping striking garbage workers. The Americans also alludes to the night before King’s death as a kind of Gethsemane28 for King. It states that ‘‘Dr. King seemed to sense that death was near,’’29 while American Odyssey reports,

MLK-on-the-phoneThe night before his death King spoke at a church rally. He might have had a premonition when he said, ‘‘We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop . . . I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight . . . that we as a people will get to the promised land!’’30

The messianic master narratives of King in textbooks make him seem like a superhuman figure who made few (if any) mistakes and who was beloved by his Christian brethren. Textbooks largely fail to present King as expe- riencing any personal weaknesses, struggles, or shortcomings, nor do they convey the tensions that he encountered among other civil rights leaders and some Christian organizations. A more humanizing portrayal of King and the events surrounding him would address these issues and help us move beyond his larger-than-life image. Taking King out of the messianic master narrative and presenting him within the context of his full humanity provides a much more accurate, historically contextualized image of the man and what he stood for.

A critical presentation of King would provide insight into the life of an ordinary man who, along with others, challenged extraordinary forces and institutions to gain full citizenship rights for all. Such a strat- egy presents a more complex, genuine, and interesting knowledge base that would likely excite students about history. It might also make history ‘‘real’’ to students in a way that will help them see themselves as ordinary citizens who could bring about positive and progressive social change in American society.


A second master narrative prevalent in the textbooks is King as the em- bodiment of the civil rights movement. This type of master narrative allows textbook writers and publishers to condense a large body of information within the life of an individual, event, or series of events. Historians often portray social movements and events in a ‘‘top-down’’ or ‘‘Whiggish’’ man- ner that promotes a ‘‘great man’’ or ‘‘great event’’ narrative of progress.31 Herbert Butterfield characterized Whiggish history as the ‘‘tendency in many historians . . . to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.’’32 While the term is British, one need only think about the nar- ratives of American history to see that the United States has its own history of Whiggism.

For example, Christopher Columbus is portrayed as ‘‘discovering’’ the Americas despite the evidence that others likely came before him, and more important, that the Arawaks and other Native Americans did not view themselves as having been discovered.33 We are equally familiar with the history of the ‘‘Founding Fathers,’’ such as Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and others as symbols of American democracy, and Abraham Lincoln as the ‘‘Great Emancipator’’ and symbol of freedom. However, we are rarely exposed to stories of countless other men and women whose actions were also instrumental in bringing about democracy and freedom in the United States. While efforts have been made in the field of social history to tell the stories of the common folk, narratives of ‘‘great’’ men and events pushing America toward an ideal of progress and civili- zation continue to constitute the standard way in which many historians and history textbooks disseminate information.

In telling the story of the civil rights movement, many scholars and the media have used the Whiggish approach, with King as the primary architect of and spokesman for the movement. Even during King’s lifetime, the me- dia focused primarily on King and his agenda when covering the move- ment. This overwhelming focus on King has had a lasting effect on the present-day tendency to view King as the sole impetus for and sustainer of the movement. In fact, many historians periodize the movement beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and Rosa Parks and the emergence of King as a leader in 1955, and ending with King’s assassination in 1968. All the textbooks examined use the 1954/1955–1968 time period—or what some call the ‘‘King years’’—to frame their discussions of the civil rights movement.

Historian Peniel Joseph argued that the emphasis on King and this ‘‘he- roic’’ period of the movement silences many other voices before, during, and after 1954/1955–1968. As a result, the more radical or militant voices of

the civil rights movement, such as the Black Panthers, North Carolina mil- itant Robert Franklin Williams, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and others are muffled or silenced.34 The popular media and high school history texts provide a master narrative portraying a linear progression in which King helped move the country toward a ‘‘colorblind’’ society, despite some bumps in the road.

The American Pageant first brings up King as a major figure in discussing desegregation in the South during the Eisenhower years. The master nar- rative begins here as the text describes King and his wife, Coretta, having to spend their wedding night in a black-owned funeral parlor because of seg- regation laws. The text then covers key moments of the movement, such as the murder of Emmett Till, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Little Rock Crisis. The emergence of King as a leader in 1955 is considered a pivotal event. While The American Pageant acknowledges that after King’s assassi- nation ‘‘the job was far from completed,’’ the book implies that the civil rights movement was over by shifting away from civil rights to a focus on Vietnam, and ending the chapter in the year 1968.35

America: Pathways follows a similar format, setting the stage for the move- ment by discussing Jackie Robinson’s integration of major league baseball, Brown v. Board, Little Rock, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. America: Pathways presents King ‘‘as the Movement’’ and introduces the movement with a picture of what appears to be the Montgomery Bus Boycott.36 While America: Pathways pays some homage to a variety of civil rights organizations and activists such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers, King remains at the center of its discussion. America: Pathways portrays King’s image and cites his speeches and writings far more than any other person or organization in- volved in the movement.

The Americans gives some coverage to often overlooked activists such as E. D. Nixon, but the text is dominated by images of King and references to and quotations from his speeches. The chapter on the civil rights movement ends with the death of King in 1968, in a section titled ‘‘Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.’’ Such a title implies that the civil rights movement was over after King’s death and that it was time to assess the movement.37

The American Nation focuses less on King and covers the civil rights movement under the broadly formatted chapter titled ‘‘From Camelot to Watergate.’’ Thus, this text differs from the others by placing King in a larger context and by subsuming King and the civil rights movement within the extensive coverage of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administra- tions. The book does situate King during his later years, 1965–1968, within the context of the Vietnam War, but without much discussion of King’s participation in the antiwar movement.38

The periodization of the movement in the popular media and in text- books to correspond with the years of King’s leadership has contributed to a linear and shallow framework from which students learn little about the true breadth and depth of the movement. As a result, texts examine briefly (or ignore entirely) events and activists before and after the ‘‘King years.’’ For example, some of the textbooks ignore or give only a cursory treatment to the role of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, E. Franklin Frazier, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Benjamin E. Mays, and A. Phillip Randolph in helping establish the fertile ground from which massive nonviolent direct action blossomed during the 1950s and 1960s.

These and other black leaders, along with numerous events during the first half of the 20th century, helped formulate the philosophical and the- oretical foundations of arguments for black economics, civil and human rights, pan-Africanism, and other pertinent issues that were the linchpins of 1950s and 1960s mass social activism. An example of an event that predates the 1954/1955–1968 periodization and that is not mentioned in any of the texts is the ‘‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work’’ campaigns of the 1930s. These campaigns were organized by blacks in Chicago, New York, and other cities in an effort to force white-owned businesses to hire black work- ers. Even prior to these campaigns, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and others debated the concept of black economic cooperation and black con- sumer power as means of promoting civil rights for black Americans.39

Even within the 1954/1955–1968 time frame, most of the texts portray SNCC, CORE, and individuals such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Robert Moses, and E. D. Nixon as supporting cast members for ‘‘King’s Movement,’’ if they discuss them at all. By downplaying the voices of many people involved in the movement, the textbooks make it appear as though King dominated the discourse until the emergence of militant groups dur- ing the mid- to late 1960s.

However, black women such as Ella Baker were critical of King’s male chauvinism and his failure to advocate forcefully for female leadership in the movement. As one of the matriarchs of the movement, a founder of SNCC, and one-time executive director of SCLC (of which King was pres- ident), Baker earned her place in history as an important guiding force in the movement. However, she is minimally covered because the textbooks spotlight King as the focal point. The same can be said of Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Jo Ann Robinson, and many other women who played critical roles in the movement.40 This maternal frame of reference41 denies women’s significance as primary initiators of the movement. The minimal coverage and maternal representation of women in leadership roles perpetuate stereotypical, biased, and inaccurate views of women in American history. Textbook writers need to respond to this problem by

integrating women into textbooks not as supporting cast members, but rather as primary leaders in order to provide a more accurate picture of women’s participation in the movement.42

MLK-Montgomery-kissFrom a practical standpoint, it is understandable that textbook writers have difficulty giving equal attention to all who participated in the black freedom struggle. However, textbook writers have an opportunity to dis- tribute more balanced and comprehensive information about the move- ment. They also have a chance to show the roles that many people and events played in the overall realization of greater equality for African Americans during the decades before and after the so-called King years. In addition, if textbook publishers would reconceptualize the manner in which textbooks periodize information and present a more fluid history, students would see greater connections between the past, present, and future.

Vincent Harding discussed this problem of linearity in studying the black freedom struggle and suggested an alternative framework that highlights the contributions of many to the movement. Using the analogy of a river, Harding suggested that we view the struggle of black folk as a winding, tumultuous, and continuous river in which there are high tides and low tides. In this analogy, Harding sees all people involved in the struggle for equality as active contributors, with the low tides as precursors to the larger waves and vice versa, but with all the waves and the events recognized for their significance.43

Textbooks could benefit from using such a perspective in presenting the civil rights movement and other eras of history.44 Textbook writers and teachers might benefit from loosening rigid time periods to help their stu- dents see more clearly the connections between people and events over time and their significance to the present. Such connections tend to make history more interesting and relevant for students, who are better able to see the relationship between the civil rights movement and our present struggles for equality, democracy, and freedom.


A third master narrative prevalent in history textbooks is that of King as a ‘‘moderate’’ spokesperson for African Americans. This theme is also dom- inant among contemporary scholars and the popular media, who label King as a conservative, a moderate, or an integrationist without presenting a broad picture of his ideas over time. Such labels downplay King’s radicalism and have allowed King to be used for causes that do not reflect his pro- gressive ideas. For instance, California conservative Ward Connerly has of- ten offered ahistorical presentations of King as a ‘‘prophet’’ for a ‘‘color- blind’’ society in which affirmative action-type programs are evil and cause reverse discrimination, despite King’s own words to the contrary.45

The symbolism of moderation, as opposed to radicalism, is not new to American history and literature or to African American history. In the past, scholars have perpetuated this master narrative in portrayals of Frederick Douglass versus Alexander Crummell, W. E. B. Du Bois versus Booker T. Washington or Marcus Garvey, and even today with Jesse Jackson versus Colin Powell. Even during their lifetimes, the media portrayed King as a moderate in opposition to the radical Malcolm X.

During the early years of King’s activism, Time magazine celebrated King’s organizing abilities and his credentials as a thinker. The magazine portrayed King as a moderate voice in contrast to more radical calls to address the race problem in America.46 In listing the social philosophers whom King studied in college, Time omitted the name of Karl Marx. The magazine also dealt with King’s more ‘‘radical’’ positions as functions of his Christian belief in peace and love. Time eventually named King ‘‘Man of the Year’’ in 1964.47 During the later years of King’s life, however, major news magazines and other media criticized their ‘‘moderate icon’s’’ opposition to the Vietnam War and his plans to lead a class-based coalition called the Poor People’s Campaign to march on Washington, D.C., to demand a larger piece of the American economic pie.

The portrayal of King as a moderate is not without some historical va- lidity. During the years of the movement, King and his advisors were aware of the need both to appear moderate at times and to distance King from the rhetoric of Malcolm X and other radicals. One of King’s associates, Andrew Young, commented that he often played the role of the conservative pro- tagonist whose job it was to balance the stances of King’s more radical lieutenants, such as James Bevel and Hosea Williams.48 This ‘‘balancing’’ tactic reflected King’s moderate stance on many issues and his political strategy of appealing to a large cross-section of the American populace. At the same time, evidence that King was perceived as a radical can be found in his surveillance by government agencies. For instance, attorney general Robert Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap King’s phones in the in- terest of national security, and King was hounded under the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (CONINTELPRO).49

Historian August Meier acknowledged King’s radicalism and his attempt to place his message at the ‘‘center’’ of the body politic. Meier bestowed upon King the dialectical title of a ‘‘conservative militant.’’ The duality of conservative and militant positions allowed King to appeal to a wider au- dience than his counterparts in the movement who polarized themselves on the extremes of ideas for change (i.e., the Black Panthers or the gradu- alists).50 For the most part, the conservative militant duality translates to the type of moderation that King was able to portray in order to make the movement palatable to a wide cross-section of Americans. By barely men- tioning or not acknowledging at all the U.S. government’s surveillance of

The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks 675

King, textbooks portray a King who appears noncontroversial and concil- iatory rather than the radical and controversial figure he was during his lifetime.

Textbooks reinforce the image of King as a moderate by providing ex- cerpts from his speeches that either skim over or omit his critiques of American capitalism or his advocacy of a radical economic and political transformation of American society. Moreover, King’s critiques of poverty and the Vietnam War and his support for a strong black economy are ignored or minimally discussed in nearly all the textbooks under exami- nation. For instance, the textbooks make few references to King’s harshest critiques of American society in his ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ and ‘‘Mountaintop’’ speeches.

The American Pageant, for example, quotes passages from ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ that evoke American idealism and patriotism and visions of the classic ‘‘melting pot’’ metaphor of a multiracial and multicultural society:

When the architects of our great republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.51

American Odyssey, The Americans, The American Nation, and America: Pathways also quote from the most popularized and uncritical parts of the speech. While The American People quotes the same well-known passages as the other texts, it offers the most critical perspective of the March on Washington by recounting the thoughts of civil rights activist Anne Moody:

Not all were moved. Anne Moody, who had come up from the activist work in Mississippi to attend the event, sat on the grass by the Lincoln Memorial as the speaker’s words rang out. ‘‘Martin Luther King went on talking about his dream,’’ she said. ‘‘I sat there thinking that . . . we never had time to sleep, much less dream.’’52

By discussing Anne Moody’s perspective, the authors of The American People attempt to balance their presentation of the ‘‘Dream’’ speech by showing that not everyone who heard the speech perceived it to be a messianic moment or the pinnacle of the civil rights movement.

Contemporary popular media and the textbooks examined have nearly solidified King and his words in time on that sweltering day in August over four decades ago. However, most of us do not read the words containing King’s critique of American democracy, nor do we read his analogies of

African Americans still bound by the ‘‘chains’’ of American slavery. The master narrative of King’s ‘‘Dream,’’ as a moderate plea for the expansion of the American Dream, has overshadowed his more radical critique of poverty in the midst of substantial U.S. economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s and his insistence that America live up to the democratic prin- ciples it claimed to hold so dear.

T1579582_23In fact, the ‘‘Dream’’ speech that catapulted King to the national and international stage and solidified his image as the moderate spokesperson for the movement also contained passages that revealed a more radical King. Even the well-known passage from King’s ‘‘Dream’’ speech in which he tells his audience that ‘‘America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’’’ alludes to a shift in King’s message toward discussing issues of poverty and American capitalism as major reasons for the sustained oppressive conditions of blacks.53 Unfor- tunately, high school students reading the most popular textbooks are rarely exposed to these aspects of that famous speech in which King stated,

But one hundred years later [after the Emancipation Proclamation] the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segre- gation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still lan- guished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.54

All the textbooks appear cautious in dealing with King and his increasing radicalism after the Selma campaign of 1965. Most, in fact, attempt to ne- gotiate the issue by holding on to the moderate King, grasping for the more patriotic and messianic King of the early years, and showing the tension between King and a new generation of black radicals. The American Pageant, for instance, states, ‘‘The pious Christian moderation of Martin Luther King, Jr., came under heavy fire from this second wave of younger black leaders, who privately mocked the dignified Dr. King as ‘de lawd.’ ’’55

The American People distances King from the radicalism of the 1965–1968 era and ignores King’s more radical views during his final years. It states, ‘‘King still adhered to non-violence and interracial cooperation.’’56 Al- though King was becoming increasingly vocal in his criticism of American capitalism and the country’s gradualism toward eliminating poverty, The American People and most of the other texts defuse King’s radicalism during his later years by juxtaposing his moderate image with the more vocal cries for ‘‘Black Power’’ of the young radicals.57

American Odyssey acknowledges King’s stand against the Vietnam War and even mentions King’s economic concern that the war was stifling the

Johnson administration’s Great Society and War on Poverty. After briefly mentioning King and Vietnam, American Odyssey quotes from the ‘‘Moun- taintop’’ speech in which King speculated about the future, the ‘‘difficult days ahead,’’ and his people making it to the ‘‘promised land.’’58 These quotes allude to the resiliency of black people in overcoming oppressive conditions, rather than offering a critique of the system that oppressed them. The American Nation and The Americans also overlook King’s increased radicalism during his later years. All the texts focus on the moderate aspects of King’s message in his ‘‘Mountaintop’’ speech.

Perhaps to avoid acknowledging King’s increased radicalism later in life, most of the textbooks highlight King during the early years of his partic- ipation in the civil rights movement. The books focus on the cogency of his message of American ideals that could be embraced by all Americans, but few of them present King’s scathing critiques of American capitalism. For instance, in a piece of rare video footage of King, recorded just weeks before his death in 1968, he offered an analysis of American capitalism that in tone is unlike anything portrayed in the textbooks:

At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land, in the west and the mid-west, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land- grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm. And they are the very people telling the black man that he ought to lift himself up by his own bootstraps.59

Such views on black poverty during King’s later years are almost always skimmed over or ignored in the textbooks. In particular, none of the books mentions that while King abhorred the linguistic connotations of Black Power, he supported the Black Power advocates’ concept of blacks pooling their economic resources to improve their conditions. He stated, ‘‘Black Power, in its broad and positive meaning, is a call to amass political and economic strength to achieve legitimate goals. No one can deny that the Negro is in dire need of this kind of legitimate power.’’60

Another symbolic representation of King as a moderate is the juxtapo- sition of King’s words and activities with those of Malcolm X. The American Pageant, for instance, provides the classic picture of Malcolm, with furled lips, pointing his finger toward his audience. The text of The American

Pageant helps readers further grasp this image of Malcolm: ‘‘Malcolm X trumpeted black separatism and inveighed against the ‘blue eyed white devils.’’’ In contrast, with regard to King’s death, The American Pageant states, ‘‘A martyr for justice, he [King] had bled and died against the pe- culiarly American thorn of race. The killing of King cruelly robbed the American people of one of the most inspirational leaders in their history.’’61 No such praise is noted of Malcolm after his death. Instead, The American Pageant bluntly states, ‘‘in early 1965, he [Malcolm] was cut down by rival Nation of Islam gunmen while speaking to a large crowd in New York.’’62

While The American Pageant acknowledges Malcolm’s break with the Na- tion of Islam and observes that Malcolm began to ‘‘temper his separatist creed,’’ it holds strongly to the Martin/Malcolm dichotomy of the moderate versus the radical. Almost every text contrasts a moderate, magnetic, and inspirational King with an angry and militant Malcolm.63 The power of these images of King and Malcolm help reinforce, for students reading these textbooks, the moderate master narrative of King and the prevailing dichotomy of these two men, which remains pervasive in popular culture and society.

American Odyssey follows suit in dichotomizing King and Malcolm. Under a section entitled ‘‘Malcolm X and Black Separatism,’’ the authors state, ‘‘Black separatism was the antithesis of the civil rights movement’s goal of racial integration.’’64 Like The American Pageant, American Odyssey features a picture of an angry Malcolm and acknowledges that Malcolm later ‘‘soft- ened’’ his views, but it does not let go of the Malcolm/Martin dichotomy:

bknation_mlk12-1Though Malcolm X’s views on separatism gradually softened toward the end of his life, he never supported King’s nonviolent methods. Instead, he advocated the use of weapons for self-defense, believing that African Americans’ nonviolence simply emboldened violent white racists. Shortly before his death, Malcolm X pointed out in a speech at Selma, ‘‘The white people should thank Dr. King for holding black people in check.’’65

All the other texts take a similar view to that of The American Pageant and American Odyssey. The American People uses the same classic ‘‘angry’’ picture of Malcolm. The American Nation shows a photo of Malcolm X and the ‘‘radical’’ Muhammad Ali, who opposed American involvement in Vietnam and re- fused to join the military after being drafted. This picture is juxtaposed with King’s moderate and calming ‘‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’’ The Amer- ican Nation also quotes from some of Malcolm’s more vitriolic speeches, in which Malcolm advises blacks to ‘‘send him [a violent white man] to the cemetery,’’ in contrast to King’s moderate pacifist position.66 Similarly, America: Pathways provides a picture of Malcolm talking with the ‘‘radical’’

Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.67 Not surprisingly, none of the textbooks presents the now-classic picture of King and Malcolm shaking hands at the U.S. capital in 1964. This image, of course, would have weakened the King/Malcolm dichotomy.68

By portraying King solely as a moderate, textbooks risk solidifying a presentist 69 framework that overlooks critical aspects of King and his ideas. For instance, during the 1960s, many southern politicians and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover did not view King as a moderate, but rather as a radical who had communist ties, or at the very least was influenced by communists. The FBI was so concerned about King’s radicalism and potential for in- citing a black revolution that it deemed his activities a threat to national security and subjected him to surveillance and wiretaps throughout the period of his involvement in the movement.70 As can be seen in the FBI files on King, there was concern among some whites during the 1960s that while King may have been to the political right of other activists, his ideas and activities were radical and, according to many entities at the highest levels of government, potentially dangerous. This fact, along with the numerous threats that King received on his life and his eventual assassination, calls into question the moderate portrayals of King provided by most of these textbooks.

While King offered more radical critiques of black Americans’ economic conditions during his later years, he also more explicitly connected Amer- ican involvement in Vietnam and other countries with oppressive condi- tions of the poor in the United States, much like Du Bois and Malcolm X had done during the latter years of their lives. Only a few of the textbooks even briefly or peripherally discuss King’s views on Vietnam or make ref- erence to his ideas on American militarism and American poverty. In a speech in 1967, a week before King’s famous ‘‘coming out’’ speech about the Vietnam War delivered at the Riverside Baptist Church in New York, he warned,

This confused war has played havoc with our domestic doctrines. De- spite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam. The pur- suit of this widened war has narrowed domestic welfare programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home.71

These textbooks’ minimal or nonexistent coverage of King’s anti-Vietnam stance, Poor People’s Campaign, ideas about compensation for historically oppressed groups, and perspectives on black labor exploitation diminishes King’s message and deprives students of the totality of the vision of a truly democratic, poverty-free, and peaceful society that King vigorously called for during his later years. While textbooks cannot extensively cover all aspects of history, it is important for textbook writers and teachers to offer a more balanced history that includes information that may not fit nicely into predominant master narratives prevalent in textbooks. Incorporating more complex, complicated, and ‘‘radical’’ viewpoints into the teaching of Amer- ican history makes history not only more interesting but also more accurate and pertinent. It also fosters ongoing critiques of important issues, such as poverty, capitalism, and war, that students would likely find relevant to contemporary issues facing the United States.


Collectively, the three master narratives of King discussed in this article offer a sanitized, noncontroversial, oversimplified view of perhaps one of America’s most radical and controversial leaders. They hide King’s hu- manity, submerging his struggles and weaknesses and the depth of his ideas. They paint a picture of the civil rights movement as a period far removed from the present, disconnected from contemporary problems of racism, discrimination, and poverty in American society. As a result, students are denied an opportunity see King’s true message and its relevance to poverty, discrimination, and global conflict today.

When students are exposed to only the typical master narratives of King and other individuals, they are deprived of a conceptual lens that would help them better comprehend the world around them. Because textbooks remain the main source of historical information for most students, teachers must play a more significant role in moving beyond master narratives to provide their students with critical, relevant, and more accurate history. As a former high school history teacher, I have three recommendations as to how teachers may address the problem.

One recommendation is that teachers move away from textbooks as pri- mary source material. Given many students’ ability to access the Internet in their schools and public libraries, teachers could assign lessons that offer counterviews to the master narratives in history textbooks. For instance, in studying the master narrative of King as a moderate, teachers could have students examine primary sources, such as government files on King, to see how the government viewed him as a radical. Such information can be found readily online.72 By exposing students to such primary sources, teachers encourage them to see the conflicting interpretations of King and allow them to construct their own interpretations. Such an approach also can easily be used with other well-known historical figures and events.

A second approach is for teachers to encourage students to make con- nections between figures and events of the past and those of the present.

The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks 681

For example, teachers might have students compare the political ideals of Franklin Roosevelt, who was considered a liberal Democrat, with George H. W. Bush, who is considered a conservative Republican. Of course, such a comparison presents some temporal limitations, but this project would force students to extend their thinking about the master narratives of Roosevelt and Bush by undertaking a dynamic and critical examination of these portrayals. Through such an exercise, students might find counter- information regarding some presidents’ categorizations as liberal and con- servative, and they may discover that such master narratives are rigid and limiting, whereas historical reality is much more fluid.

Finally, teachers could begin to address the problem of master narratives by integrating a bottom-up approach to history into their lessons. Top-down and Whiggish history approaches to history typically result in the ‘‘great men’’ master narratives found in many history textbooks. An alternative approach is to introduce students to historical events through the lives of ordinary or ‘‘everyday’’ people. For example, to obtain an understanding of what life was like for African American women during the civil rights pe- riod, students might be encouraged to interview women who lived through that period. This approach moves students beyond master narratives by allowing them to take active roles as historians instead of merely being the passive recipients of top-down interpretations.

Ultimately, we must remember that educating students about the history of their country has long been recognized as a vital aspect of preparing the next generation to participate in a democratic society. This commitment is grounded in the belief that a keen understanding of our collective past will provide students with insights into present challenges and dilemmas and help them avoid repeating past mistakes in our present and future. If we are truly determined to build a more democratic society that learns from the mistakes of its past, we must jettison prescribed textbook master nar- ratives that prevent critical analyses and interpretations of our history. In doing so, we harness the power of history to help build a more democratic society.



1 I use the term master narrative to refer to a dominant and overarching theme or template that presents the literature, history, or culture of a society. For a discussion of the term as used within historical studies, see Jeffrey Cox and Shelton Stromquist (Eds.), Contesting the Master Narrative: Essays in Social History (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998).

2 James Banks has argued that textbooks play a major role in presenting history to stu- dents, mainly because teachers tend to teach directly from their texts. As a result, textbooks influence tremendously students’ views on American history. See James Banks, Teaching Strat- egies for the Social Studies (New York: Longman, 1990), 236–37.

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3 James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 14–15.

4 W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 722.

5 It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a detailed account of how teachers might teach about King in American history. In another essay, however, I extend on this study of high school history textbooks and discuss specifically and in some detail how teachers might rethink teaching about King and the civil rights movement. In that essay, I also provide specific ped- agogical examples of how to move beyond the master narratives found in many history text- books. See Derrick P. Alridge, ‘‘Teaching Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement in High School History Courses: Rethinking Content and Pedagogy,’’ in Freedom’s Bittersweet Song: Teaching the American Civil Rights Movement, ed. J. B. Armstrong, S. H. Hult, H. B. Roberson, and R. Y. Williams, 3–17 (New York: Routledge, 2002).

6 Ibid., 17.

7 David M. Kennedy et al., The American Pageant (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002); Gary B. Nash, American Odyssey: The 20th Century and Beyond (New York: McGraw Hill, 2004); Andrew Cayton et al., America: Pathways to the Present (Needham, MA: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005); Gerald A. Danzer et al., The Americans (Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2005); Mark C. Carnes and John A. Garraty, The American Nation: A History of the United States, vols. 1 & 2 (New York: Longman, 2003); Gary B. Nash et al., The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society (New York: Pearson/Longman, 2004).

8 See Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, 17.

9 See Thomas B. Fordham, http://www.edexcellence.net/institute/publication/publication. cfm?id=329&pubsubid=1020. It should be noted that my study examines the most recent widely used or popular textbooks.

10 For data from the American Textbook Council, see http://www.historytextbooks.org/ adoptions.htm. For studies that cite The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society as a popular textbook, see Van Gosse, ‘‘Consensus and Contradiction in the Textbook Treatments of the Sixties,’’ The Journal of American History (September, 1995), 668 and Sundiata Keita Cha- Jua and Robert E. Weems, Jr. ‘‘Coming into Focus: The Treatment of African Americans in Post-Civil War United States History Texts,’’ The Journal of American History (March 1994), 1418. For information regarding The American Nation, See http://www.ablongman.com/catalog/aca demic/product/1,4096,0321052870,00.html. Loewen discusses the use of The American Pageant in high level and advanced placement high school courses, see Loewen, 17.

11 Van Gosse, ‘‘Consensus and Contradiction in Textbook Treatments of the Sixties,’’ Journal of American History 82 (1995): 658. As a point of clarification, note that Gosse’s study is an analysis of contemporary textbooks’ information about the sixties rather than an exami- nation of sixties textbooks. His statement, quoted above, I argue, is therefore applicable to the contemporary textbooks examined in this study. A limitation of my study is perhaps the small sample of textbooks used for analysis. However, as mentioned earlier in the article, the purpose of my analysis is a critique of the representation of King and his ideas in six current textbooks in the United States rather than a full-blown examination of U.S. high school textbooks. My analysis of the six textbooks written by some of the country’s leading historians and textbook writers provides some important insights into how King is portrayed in many high school history textbooks. Moreover, a smaller sample allowed me to more critically explore imagery, metaphor, and symbolism that in a larger sample would have received only a surface analysis, given the space limitations imposed by a journal article.

12 The term messiah is derived from the Hebrew massiah, meaning anointed. In the tra- dition of the ancient Hebrews, it signified the belief in a future great deliverer—a priest, king, or prophet who would come with a special mission from God. Messianic language and imagery are especially prevalent among oppressed groups but also exist among oppressors who at one

The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks 683

time in their own history were the oppressed. Americans, many of whom belong to groups that were persecuted either long ago in Europe or more recently in this country, are especially receptive to messianic symbolism and imagery. See The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third edition; Wilson J. Moses, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982), 2–16. See also Albert B. Cleage, Jr. The Black Messiah (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968).

13 John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). Also see S. P. Fullwider, The Mind and Mood of Black America: 20th Century Thought (Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1969), 26–28.

14 The identification of a personal savior-messiah, prophet, or Mahdi is especially prevalent in African American politico-religious literature, as exemplified in such works as David Walker’s Appeal (1829), Albert J. Cleage’s The Black Messiah (1968), and W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Blacks often applied religious and messianic imagery to their situation, and many thought of themselves as ‘‘children of God’’ to be freed by a great deliverer. Nineteenth- century figures such as Nat Turner, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Abraham Lincoln have historically represented the deliverers of the black race. In addition, some whites attributed messianic symbolism to the black condition during the antebellum and postbellum eras. Historian Wilson Moses pointed out, for instance, that white abolitionists attributed messianic qualities to both the Union armies and the black race.

15 For a thorough examination of King’s use of language, see Keith D. Miller, Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Its Sources (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 11–12.

16 Ibid., 112–158.

17 For example, religious leaders and politicians such as John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and Benjamin Rush; deists such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine; and 20th-century conservatives such as Ronald Reagan understood the power of merging Christian and patriotic symbols to energize and galvanize the masses. For an interesting dis- cussion of King’s use of religious and patriotic secular symbolism, see Charles P. Henry, ‘‘De- livering Daniel: The Dialectic of Ideology and Theology in the Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’’ Journal of Black Studies 17 (1987): 327–45.

18 Full titles and citations are as follows: David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow, 1986); Stephen Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper Perennial Edition, 1994); Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963–65 (New York: Simon and & Schuster, 1998), and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006); and Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: The Free Press, 2000). For references to King as Moses and for a discussion of the impact of King’s use of biblical narrative and preaching, see Richard Lischer, ‘‘The Word that Moves: The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’’ Theology Today 46 (1989): 169–82.

19 See Bailey, Kennedy, and Cohen, The American Pageant, 894. Similar portrayals of a young messianic deliverer are found in Nash, American Odyssey, 676; Cayton et al., America: Pathways, 938; Danzer et al., The Americans, 911; and The American Nation, 795. The American People does not emphasize King’s youth.

20 Danzer et al., The Americans, 911; Nash, American Odyssey; and Nash and Jeffrey, The American People, 921.

21 Nash, American Odyssey, 675.
22 Nash et al., The American People, 951 and Danzer et al, The Americans, 861. 23 Nash, American Odyssey, 685.
24 Cayton et al., American Pathways, 945.

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  1. 25  See Kennedy et al., The American Pageant, 926; Nash et al., The American People, 974.
  2. 26  Nash, American Odyssey, 688.
  3. 27  Cayton et al., American Pathways, 953.
  4. 28  According to the Bible, Gethsemane was a garden where Jesus prayed and appealed to

God about his destiny to die as a savior for humankind.
29 Danzer et al., The Americans, 927.
30 Nash, American Odyssey, 695.
31 Historian Howard Zinn has been a crusader for the presentation of history that is

bottom-up rather than top-down. Top-down history is the history of ‘‘great men and women,’’ whereas bottom-up history is the history of the common people. See, for example, Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492–Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995). Historians James Davidson and Mark Lytle provide a good analysis of these historical view- points, using the terms top-rail and bottom-rail in discussing top-down and bottom-up historical approaches to writing history. See James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 177–211.

32 Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931; repr,. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), v.

33 See Ivan Van Sertima, They Came before Columbus (New York: Random House, 1976).

34 See Peniel E. Joseph, ‘‘Waiting till the Midnight Hour: Reconceptualizing the Heroic Period of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1965,’’ Souls (Spring 2000): 6–17; Van Gosse, 658– 69; Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, ‘‘Mobilizing Memory: Broadening Our View of the Civil-Rights Movement,’’ The Chronicle Review: The Chronicle of Higher Education, sec. 2, July 7, 2001. For a good discussion of the content and periodization of the civil rights movement and African American history in secondary history textbooks, see James Anderson, ‘‘Secondary School History Textbooks and the Treatment of Black History,’’ in The State of Afro-American History: Past, Present, and Future, ed. Darlene Clarke Hine (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 253–74.

35 Bailey, Kennedy, and Cohen, The American Pageant, 891–95, 934. 36 Cayton et al., America: Pathways, 928.
37 Danzer et al., The Americans, 928.
38 See Garraty and Carnes, Nation, 789–805.

39 Robert E. Weems, Jr. ‘‘African-American Consumer Boycotts during the Civil Rights Era,’’ The Western Journal of Black Studies, 19, no. 1 (1995): 72–79.

40 For additional information about Ella Baker and other women activists in the move- ment, see Charles Payne, ‘‘Ella Baker and Models of Social Change,’’ Signs: Journal of Women and Society 14, no. 4 (1989): 885–99; LaVerne Gyant, ‘‘Passing the Torch: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement,’’ in The Civil Rights Movement, ed. Jack E. Davis (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 130–44; Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000); John White, ‘‘‘Nixon Was the One’: Edgar Daniel Nixon, the MIA and the Montgomery Bus Boycott,’’ in The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Brian Ward and Tony Badger (London: Macmillan, 1996), 45–63.

41 Maternal frame of reference refers to the tendency of males in the civil rights movement to relegate women to stereotypical roles as mother and child-bearer. In addition, some women involved in the CRM, for instance, have argued that male leaders did not allow them to take place in leadership roles, but rather relegated them to subsidiary roles. For discussion of this idea, see M. Bahati Kuumba, Gender and Social Movements (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000), 1–19.

42 Myra Sadker, David Sadker, and Lynette Long, ‘‘Gender and Educational Equality,’’ in Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, ed. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993), 111–28. The authors in this essay pointed out that ‘‘studies show that bias free materials can have a positive influence and can encourage students at

The Limits of Master Narratives in History Textbooks 685

various grade levels to change attitudes and behaviors as a result of their reading materials’’ (114).

43 Vincent Harding, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981), xviii–xix.

44 Ibid., xi–xxvi.

45 See Paul Rockwell, ‘‘Ward Connerly Perverts the Teachings of Dr. King,’’ The Daily Californian, October 31, 1999. For a discussion of King’s views pertaining to affirmative action programs for African Americans, see Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). Also see Mary Francis Berry, ‘‘Vindicating Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Road to a Color-Blind Society,’’ Journal of Negro History 81 (1996): 137–44.

46 See Lentz Richard Lentz, Symbols, the News Magazines, and Martin Luther King (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 31.

47 Ibid., 35.

48 Young states that King stated the following to him, ‘‘I depend on you to bring a certain kind of common sense to staff meetings . . . I need you to take as conservative a position as possible, then I can have plenty of room to come down in the middle wherever I want to.’’ See Andrew Young, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 285.

49 See Michael Friedly and David Gallen, Martin Luther King, Jr.: The FBI File (New York: Carroll & Graff Publishers, 1993), 37–58.

50 August Meier, ‘‘On the Role of Martin Luther King,’’ in Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, ed. David J. Garrow (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1989), 52–59.

51 Bailey, Kennedy, and Cohen, The American Pageant, The American Pageant, 926.
52 Cayton et al., America: Pathways, 974.
53 Many historians use King’s ‘‘Dream’’ speech as an example of King’s appeal to the

‘‘moderate center’’ and identify his shift of ideas to the left as beginning after the march on Selma in 1965. However, James Farmer, founder of the Congress for Racial Equality, argued that the March on Washington marked the beginning of the end of the civil rights movement. While I am not willing to go that far, I do believe that the March on Washington was the beginning of a shift in King’s thought to an open discussion, on a national level, of black civil rights and issues of poverty. In fact, one can go back even further to some of King’s early speeches at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to find these connections. For a discussion of Farmer’s position, see James Farmer, ‘‘The March on Washington: The Zenith of the Southern Movement,’’ in New Directions in Civil Rights Studies, ed. Armstead L. Robinson and Patricia Sullivan (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 30–37.

54 Nash et al., The American People, 217.
55 Bailey, Kennedy, and Cohen, The American Pageant, The American Pageant, 932.
56 Nash et al., The American People, 955–58.
57 Ibid., 981.
58 Nash, American Odyssey, 695.
59 See Frontline: The Two Nations of Black America, prod. June Cross, 60 min., PBS video,

1998, videocassette.
60 Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here, 36. Also see Derrick P. Alridge,

‘‘Teaching Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement,’’ 11. 61 See Bailey, Kennedy, and Cohen, The American Pageant, 932–934. 62 Ibid.
63 Ibid.

64 Nash, American Odyssey, 692.
65 Ibid.
66 Garraty and Carnes, The American Nation, 839.

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  1. 67  Cayton et al., America: Pathways, 837.
  2. 68  See photo and discussion in Clayborne Carson, ‘‘A ‘Common Solution’: Martin and

Malcolm’s Gulf was Closing but the Debate Lives On,’’ Emerge, February 1998, 44–53.

69 Presentism is the historian’s error of making generalizations based on events taken out of historical context. For a discussion of this concept, see Derrick P. Alridge, ‘‘The Dilemmas, Challenges, and Duality of an African-American Educational Historian,’’ Educational Researcher 32, no. 9 (December 2003): 25–34.

70 Michael Friedly and David Gallen, Martin Luther King, Jr.: The FBI File (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1993), 20–65.

71 Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘‘Casualties of the Vietnam War: An Address by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Nation Institute.’’ Los Angeles, California, February 25, 1967. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers, King Center, Atlanta, Georgia.

72 Primary source materials on King may be retrieved from the National Archives Web site at http://www.archives.gov/research_room/jfk/house_select_comittee_report_references_mlk. html and from the FBI’s Web site at http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/king.htm.
derrick_alridge2Derrick P. Alridge is professor of history of education in the Social Foundations of Education program at the University of Virginia. His primary areas of scholarship are African American educational and intellectual history and the civil rights movement. He is the author of The Educational Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois: An Intellectual History and co-editor (with James B. Stewart and V.P. Franklin) of Message in the Music: Hip Hop, History, and Pedagogy.  Read more.


WATCH: Why #BlackLivesMatter Protests Are Happening Across the Country

This woman tells us what ignited the ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ movement.

“An Overreaction” written and performed by Sarah O’Neal.

Why #BlackLivesMatter Protests Are Happening Across the Country

This woman tells us what ignited the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “An Overreaction” written and performed by Sarah O'Neal.

Posted by AJ+ on Sunday, January 17, 2016

Can We Please Leave This “Pussyfication/Emasculation/Feminization Of The Black Male” Garbage In 2015? Please?


Can We Please Leave This “Pussyfication/Emasculation/Feminization Of The Black Male” Garbage In 2015? Please? Like, please? Can we do this? Immediately if not sooner?

We are setting our sons up for failure by denying them their humanity like this. We are forcing our boys into a box void of humanity and emotion. In said box, their manhood is attached to how many women they fuck and how hard they can hit.

Author’s Note: Names in this piece have been altered to protect the privacy of my relatives. Let me also say unequivocally I do not believe Black people are somehow more homophobic or transphobic or misogynist than others. However, it is impossible to be pro-Black and homophobic. If your pro-Black involves sexism, misogyny, homophobia, or other systems of oppression, your pro-Blackness is white supremacy, fam.

Over the Christmas break, all nine of my younger cousins were staying at my house – six girls and three boys ranging in age from six to nineteen. Was it crowded? Definitely. Did I have to give up my room for a few days? Yes, but it was a sacrifice I gladly made for my folks. It was the kind of Christmas that would give Tyler Perry material for the next decade. Five generations of my big, beautiful Black family in my mother’s Brownstone cooking, eating, laughing, and being thankful for having made it through another year.

The morning after Christmas, I heard loud music playing from the kitchen. I figured it was my cousin Tey since he was the only one not in the bed. I walked into the kitchen and saw him dancing to “I’m Every Woman”. I noticed him before he noticed me and didn’t want to interrupt his slaying.

In case you’re curious, his vogue game was on a thousand. I had to tighten up.

I became less annoyed with the Whitney Houston at 9 AM and more taken aback by this ten year old who knew all the words to the song.

He spun around, saw me standing there and froze. I saw the joy leave his eyes. He scrambled for his phone to shut the music off and started crying.

He pleaded with me not to tell his mom or brothers. He proceeded to tell me boys at his school call him a faggot for listening and singing along to “women’s music.” They say “that’s not what real niggas do” then continued by telling stories about their fathers “putting their mothers in their place when they said something outta pocket ” i.e. their fathers put hands on their spouses. His teacher (who happens to be a Black man) even told him that boys aren’t supposed to like things made for girls.

My cousin said he likes girls, but he’s afraid that “he’ll become gay if he keeps doing pussy things.”

The pain and torment he is subjected to reminded me of my own struggles trying to reconcile my Blackness and sexuality. I’ve been out of middle school for the better part of a decade and my cousin, ten years my junior, has to combat this even earlier than I did. There was nothing he told me that differed from what I experienced in school. Actually, I take that back. There was one difference: I played a sport.

I was a football player – a defensive lineman to be exact. My job was to collide with the O-line over and over and over again. I played one of the most violent positions in the most violent sport a middle-schooler could participate in. That constant display of male aggression helped insulate me when rumors of me being gay circulated through the halls.

Ex. “He can’t be gay. He plays football.”

My cousin told me he’s going to join the football team to put an end to the bullying. He hates football. He’s willing to do something he hates and possibly get hurt in the process just to prove to his boys he isn’t gay.

Truthfully, it wasn’t hard to wrap my head around…I did the same thing and I bet a whole bunch of little Black boys are doing the same thing too.

I would make another bet – I bet his teacher who pushes this anti-gay rhetoric down his throat will turn around and preach about pro-Blackness from an exclusively masculine standpoint.

To my brothers, I have to be truthful in assessing your views on liberation. The truth is that in some of your pro-Black worlds, there is no room for me, my cousin, and Black people who move outside of accepted gender roles synonymous with a hetero-patriarchal society. There is no space because you actively push us out and use misguided Afrocentric theory to soothe your conscience.


I remember reading The Isis Papers by the late Dr. Francis Cress Wesling after sophomore year. A number of my pro-Black guy friends swore by this book. In the chapter entitled “The Politics Behind Black Male Passivity, Effeminization, Bisexuality, and Homosexuality,” she states:

‘Black male bisexuality and homosexuality has been used by the white collective in its effort to survive genetically in a world dominated by colored people, and Black acceptance o f this imposition does not solve the major problem of our oppression but only further retards its ultimate solution.’ (92)

Cress’s commentary on Black queer people centers the experiences of everyone except Black queer people. In this framework, homosexuality is anti-Black. Bisexuality is anti-Black. Anything that creates room for a Black man to be anything other than a dominant and macho warrior is not only anti-Black, but a tool of the white supremacist power structure to diminish and reduce the virulent Black man to the ungodly status of a Black woman or a Black queer person.

To be clear, I am fully aware of Dr. Cress’s passing and I speak and honor her name as an ancestor. However, if we are serious in doing something about the narrow and unilateral depiction of Black masculinity, we must be willing to honestly examine how our elders have actively and/or tacitly perpetuated it.

To my brothers, I’m begging you; can we please leave this effeminization/emasculation/homofication/pussyfication of the Black male garbage in 2015? Please?

Y’all do know that your son’s testicles will not fall off if he cries, right?

We exist in a space where we give known rapists and pedophiles second chances. Yet if we even suspect a Black person might be gay, we cast them aside without batting an eye. Our young ones see this and they’re soaking it up.

When you openly bashed DeAndre Jordan after appearing in the StateFarm commercial in a dress, our young ones were listening.

When you constantly called Odell Beckham Jr. manhood into question for dancing with his friend on Instagram or dying his hair or allegedly looking at another man’s butt (did I miss anything?), they were listening and learning and repeating.

We are setting our sons up for failure by denying them their humanity. It’s toxic. It will eat away at them. We are forcing our boys into a box void of humanity and emotion. In this box, their manhood is attached to how many women they fuck and how hard they can hit. There’s no room in that box for emotional or spiritual exploration. The residual damage will negatively impact Black women, queer folks, trans folks, gender non-conforming folks and anyone else who challenges the antiquated conception of manhood they’ve been conditioned to hold true.

In 2016, let’s think about how we as Black men can make room for, practice, and exhibit a progressive pro-Black masculinity, one that demonstrates strength not with muscle mass but through self-love, vulnerability, honesty, and accountability to our family members more marginalized by white supremacy.


She’s bicycling around Boston, measuring the sounds of a city


Certain annoyances come with living in a metropolitan city, and noise usually is at the top of the list. The steady din of loud neighbors, music, construction, sirens, and transit vehicles hits some areas harder than others, and Erica Walker, a researcher at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wants to know where. So she is mapping the sounds of Boston.



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She plans to build a noise model based on the characteristics of Boston’s neighborhoods, including samples taken at various times at about 400 to 450 sites around the city. Dorchester is of particular interest to Walker, due to its size and high number of noise-producing elements.

“You’ve got planes, you’ve got trains, you’ve got automobiles,” Walker said to the Reporter.

A doctoral candidate in Environmental Epidemiology, the 36-year-old Walker, a Mississippi native who lives in Brookline, started thinking about the impact of community noise about six years ago, thanks to the clatter engendered by the children who were living in the apartment above her.

“They ran across the floor literally 24 hours a day, and it drove me crazy,” Walker said. Even though she loves kids, she needed to have a few moments of peace as well. After every effort to gain a reprieve failed, Walker came to the realization that this was a serious issue. This was “affecting my health,” she said.



She suspected that she did not have a unique problem.

On a whim, she posted a survey on Craigslist asking if others were consistently disturbed by footsteps and other noises in their buildings; the responses poured in. “Okay,” she said, “people really are bothered by this.”

Her work at Harvard focuses on loud community noise and how individuals respond to it. Originally, her dissertation research consisted of mapping out noise levels in communities across Boston.

Although she is recording and monitoring a variety of sounds, Walker is particularly interested in low frequency and infrasound, a sort of vibration that may not register to a human as audible noise. Her goal is to organize a series of studies based on the noise metrics she acquires. She has recently completed a study in East Boston, which is tied with Dorchester’s Savin Hill as the loudest Boston neighborhood during daytime hours, according to her measurements.

The World Health Organization has published standards for acceptable noise levels before noise is categorized as interference and annoyance and a threat of hearing loss. Many areas of Boston consistently register far above the recommended decibel level for indoor and outdoor noise levels.

The increasing number of airplane noise complaints involving Logan Airport air traffic will be the subject of a public forum in Milton tonight (Thurs., Dec. 3) that will be hosted by Congressman Stephen Lynch. Federal Aviation Administration officials have agreed to the long-sought meeting, Lynch’s office said in a statement, which will be held at Milton High School from 7 to 9 p.m.

The noise complaints have worsened after a new GPS-based navigation system that directs planes on the most efficient route was installed, Lynch’s office said. According to the statement, “the neighborhoods lying beneath those flight paths can experience extended periods of aircraft noise, raising health implications and negatively impacting the quality of life for local families.”

The quality-of-life metric is the second part of Walker’s dissertation research. As she bicycles around Boston taking noise levels, she has found that residents were often curious about her project and quick to chime in with how frustrated they are by city sounds. “If they’re upset enough to complain about it, there are probably others with the same complaint,” she said. “There’s a person behind the complaint.”

Walker is monitoring an anonymous survey being taken of attitudes and health effects as a result of exposure to community noise, which is open until April 2016 and takes just a few minutes to complete at noiseandthecity.org. Reports on the project’s progress and sound maps will also be posted at the website.

A common response to city noise complaints is a non-response. It is often taken for granted that residents sign up for the noise along with a neighborhood’s amenities. Walker hopes to personalize the effects of excess sound with case studies.

“If you don’t put a face to it, people will just be like, ‘Well, get used to it,’ ” she said.


Black Lives Matter Co-Founder to Attend State of the Union



Alicia Garza, one of the three female founders of Black Lives Matter, will be the guest of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) at President Obama’s last State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Garza is a constituent of Rep. Lee, who is active on issues of poverty, civil rights and education.

“Looking forward to welcoming #BlackLivesMatter co-creator,@aliciagarza, as my #SOTU guest. She’s a powerful voice for justice and reform,” tweeted Rep. Lee on January 7.

Looking forward to welcoming #BlackLivesMatter co-creator, @aliciagarza, as my #SOTU guest. She’s a powerful voice for justice and reform.

— Rep. Barbara Lee (@RepBarbaraLee) January 8, 2016

Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi founded the Black LIves Matter movement in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, 17, on February 26, 2012. The activism of Black Lives Matter dominated the news in 2015 and changed the conversation on policing and justice policy for 2016.

There will be other important guests in attendance for the State of the Union. According to the White House, twenty four special quests invited by the White House will watch the President lay out plans for 2016. Additionally in a symbolic act, first lady Michelle Obama will have an empty seat next to her as a statement on those lost to gun violence.

Over the weekend a White House official told NBC Black that President Obama’s final State of the Union will “represent the progress we have made since the President first delivered this speech seven years ago – from the brink of a second Great Depression and two costly wars to an economy that is growing and renewed American leadership abroad.”

The President’s guests will include people he met in 2007 and 2008 while running for office. Two guests who will be seated in the First Lady’s box are Edith Childs and Earl Smith.

Obama Campaigns Throughout South Carolina Ahead Of Democratic Primary

Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) laughs as local county council woman Edith Childs fires up the crowd for him at a campaign rally at Lander University January 22, 2008 in Greenwood, South Carolina. The enthusiastic Childs gave Obama his unofficial campaign slogan “Fired up! . . . Ready to go!” during an early visit to the rural, remote county. Obama is campaigning through the state ahead of its Democratic primary on January 26.  Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Childs is a Greenwood County, South Carolina Councilmember who is famous for the popular Obama campaign chant “Fired up! Ready to go!” Smith is a Vietnam veteran who met President Obama in a hotel elevator in 2008 and gave the then-Senator a military patch he had worn serving with an artillery brigade in Vietnam.




African American business owner Mark Davis will also be sitting in the First Lady’s box. Davis “was inspired by the President’s focus on climate change to do something to protect the planet” and owns a WDC Solar.




Another notable guest in the gallery will be Cedric Rowland of Chicago, who is a heath care insurance navigator. Richmond’s work helping people to find the best health care plan at the right price led him to assist a woman named Stephanie Lucas. Lucas is a diabetic and did not qualify for Medicaid. But Cedric’s help led her to a pan that costs $62 a month after tax credits.

Over 6 million African Americans are now eligible for health care coverage and the percentage of uninsured African Americans dropped from 24 percent to 16 percent since 2013 when the health care law was enacted.

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Alicia Garza, one of the three female founders of Black Lives Matter, will be the guest of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) at President Obama’s last State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Garza is a constituent of Rep. Lee, who is active on issues of poverty, civil rights and education.


Andrew Hawkins Player Emotionally Explains Why He Won’t Apologize To Police After His ‘Call For Justice


Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins won’t apologize for wearing a T-shirt calling for justice for two unarmed African Americans killed by police officers in Ohio in 2014. And he delivered an impassioned explanation of why he shouldn’t have to.

“I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have,” Hawkins said on Monday, getting emotional as he addressed reporters for several minutes without notes. “Also justice should be the goal of every American. I think that’s what makes this country special. To me, justice means the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.”

Hawkins, 28, took the field for the Browns’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in Cleveland wearing a shirt emblazoned with the message “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III” on the front and “The Real Battle for Ohio” on the back. Rice, 12, was fatally shot by Cleveland police in November while carrying a pellet gun. Crawford, 22, was shot and killed by police in August while holding an air rifle in a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio. Hawkins’ awareness-raising gesture came with professional and college athletes across the country making similar statements related to the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Cleveland Patrolmen’s Association President Jeffrey Follmer criticized Hawkins in a statement released on Sunday.

justice“It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law,” Follmer said. “They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns organization owes us an apology.”

The Browns refused to apologize, issuing a statement that both backed Hawkins and expressed support for police.

“We have great respect for the Cleveland Police Department and the work that they do to protect and serve our city,” the Browns said in a statement, via Cleveland.com. “We also respect our players’ rights to project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them if done so in a responsible manner.”

In his own comments on Monday, Hawkins also made clear that he was not taking a stand against all police officers.

“To clarify, I utterly respect and appreciate every police officer that protects and serves all of us with honesty, integrity and the right way,” Hawkins said. “And I don’t think those kind of officers should be offended by what I did. My mom taught me my entire life to respect law enforcement. I have family, close friends who are incredible police officers and I tell them all the time how they are much braver than me for it. So my wearing a T-shirt wasn’t a stance against every police officer or every police department. My wearing the T-shirt was a stance against wrong individuals doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons to innocent people.”

In perhaps the most poignant moment of his monologue, Hawkins revealed the very personal reason that he choose to take a stand with his T-shirt even though he was aware that he would likely face backlash.

“As you well know, and it’s well documented, I have a 2-year-old little boy,” Hawkins said. “The same 2-year-old little boy that everyone said was cute when I jokingly threw him out of the house earlier this year. That little boy is my entire world. And the No. 1 reason for me wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin scares the living hell out of me. And my heart was broken for the parents of Tamir and John Crawford knowing they had to live that nightmare of a reality. So, like I said, I made the conscious decision to wear the T-shirt. I felt my heart was in the right place. I’m at peace with it.”

Hawkins’ poignant commentary did not sway Follmer.

“It’s not a call for justice, they were justified,” Follmer said during an interview on MSNBC Monday evening after Hawkins’ remarks. “Cleveland police officers work with the Cleveland Browns hand-in-hand, and when he disrespects two of our police officers, he disrespects everybody else.”