From 1984 until 2002, 18 years, I taught high school English in the town and school where I grew up and graduated, moving into the classroom of my high school English teacher, Lynn Harrill, where I had sat as a student just six years earlier.
My first few years were overwhelming and at times terrifying; I taught five different preparations—managing fifteen different textbooks—and several of the classes were filled to capacity, 35 students packed into the room.
Throughout those two decades spanning the 1980s and past the 1990s, I was a student-centered teacher who had a wonderful relationship with my students—lots of mutual love and respect. However, there was always some tension between me and white redneck boys.
Again, these white redneck boys were who I had been growing up, and even the least aware among them likely sensed deep down inside that I knew who they were.
One of the worst days of my teaching career—sitting among having to confront a student gunman and returning to school after three children burned down the school building—included the actions of one white redneck boy.
A significant sub-unit of my nine-week non-fiction unit included walking students through the concept of civil disobedience, starting with Emerson and Thoreau but spending far more time on a mini-unit in Black history grounded in ideas and texts by Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
We capped off that unit with Gandhi, but the grounding text of this nine weeks was always King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” paired with different excerpts from Malcolm X.
One day as I was passing out King’s “Letter” (I always provided students their own copies of texts to annotate and keep), a white redneck boy slapped the handout off his desk and announced, “I ain’t reading that [N-word].”
In many ways, this was a defining moment for me as a teacher and a human. I was very aware that I had Black students in the room and that this teenager was much larger and angrier than was safe for me or the classroom of students.
I calmly returned the handout to the desk, my hand firmly on the paper while I leaned toward the student, and I said without hesitation that he would read the essay and that he would never utter that word in class again.
It seems odd to me now, but that is exactly what happened as I continued handing out the essay before we began reading and discussing the essay as a class.
This is no after-school special, and I never had any sort of deep conversation with that student—and I suspect he never changed his beliefs, except keeping his bigotry to himself, at least in my class.
I do suspect that for him and others in the classroom, I was the first white man to take a stand against racism and racist language that they had ever experienced.
It is embarrassing to admit, but that unit was a huge risk for me throughout my 18 years teaching. It even prompted not-so-veiled attacks from local preachers during sermons that my students attended on Sunday mornings (oddly, Southern Baptists seemed very offended by students studying Gandhi, who they dismissed as “not a Christian”).
There are many things I would change about my first two decades of teaching, being charged with the learning of hundreds of teenagers; there are many things I did inexcusably wrong, things for which I remain embarrassed and wish I had the power to return to those moments in order to make amends.
But that sub-unit, and specifically how I taught MLK and what works of his I exposed students to, is important still to me because we did not read “I Have a Dream,” and we did not mythologize MLK as a passive radical, rejecting the whitewashing far too common with King’s ideas and life.
I also exposed students to a wide range of Black writers and thinkers, emphasizing the importance of recognizing Malcolm X and taking his arguments seriously.
None the less, I could have done better—and even today in 2021, King’s life and legacy are woefully mis-served, especially in classrooms (as well as crossing the lips of politicians who cannot even for one day practice an iota of the ideals of King).
Here, then, is a reader for serving King better and expanding the voices and ideas with which we invite our students to engage:
Final Words of Advice/ “Where do we go from here?” (1967), Martin Luther King Jr.
“Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.
Read This Before Co-Opting MLK Jr., Jose Vilson
Harlem, Langston Hughes
Let America Be America Again, Langston Hughes
The Forgotten, Radical Martin Luther King Jr., Matt Berman
“Every white person in this country…knows one thing,” James Baldwin (1979) (incl. What Can a Sincere White Person Do? Malcolm X)
They Can’t Turn Back, James Baldwin
A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin
“Peculiar Benefits,” Roxane Gay
You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument, Caroline Randall Williams
Lockridge: “The American Myth,”James Baldwin
“The Baldwin Stamp,” Adrienne Rich
The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Godwin Woodson