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  • Until Kingdom ComesTeaching Martin Luther King's Legacy in Argumentative Writing
  • Jennifer L. Hayes (bio)

On Tuesday April 28, 2015, CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer conducted a contentious interview with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson. As the pair discussed the death of Freddie Gray and the peaceful and violent protests that erupted in Baltimore, Maryland, in response to the alleged involvement of police, a seemingly defiant Blitzer challenged McKesson about the nature of civil rights protests in the United States:


But at least 15 police officers have been hurt, 200 arrests, 144 vehicle fires, these are statistics—local police have put out 15 structural fires. There's no excuse for that kind of violence. Right?


And there's no excuse for the 7 people that Baltimore Police have killed either. Right?


We're not making comparisons; obviously we don't want anybody hurt, but I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.


Yeah. There should be peaceful protests. I don't have to condone it to understand it. Right? The pain that people feel is real, and you are making a comparison—you are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines. Right? What we know to be true is that police are killing people everywhere.

(CNN) [End Page 149]

Blitzer's abrupt allusion to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reflects a direct attempt to challenge contemporary resistance movements by comparing their methods and effectiveness to past leaders. The comparisons reveal a revisionist understanding of King's legacy and an attempt to subvert contemporary movements. The focus on King in the media is a timely one that creates opportunities for academic exploration. King is a figure who is already taught in college courses from history to literature. I propose extending this common practice into a frame to teach an introductory argumentative writing course using King's works and image. This thematic approach will be implemented through a sequence of major assignments that encourage close reading, critical thinking, and rhetorical analysis.

The phenomenon of white pundits using a reductive image of King's legacy to silence contemporary activists is an inventive racist strategy that maintains a threefold insidious goal. First, the association of King's resistance with passivism whitewashes the significance of his defiance. His legacy as a promoter of nonviolence and civil disobedience is watered down and divorced from the highly rebellious agenda he promoted. In "Letter from Birmingham Jail" King asserts that "nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue [so] that it can no longer be ignored" (596). Accordingly, any reading of King's agenda as solely focused on peacemaking undercuts his strategies to bring about peace. At the heart of King's agenda was a desire to challenge racist and classist systems of oppression that disproportionally harmed black people. Second, by emphasizing nonviolence as the sole strategy for activism, primarily black activism, critics create a reductive narrative about civil rights movements led by black people in the United States. This conversation creates a narrative that legitimate resistance movements only utilize nonviolent strategies. If and when protestors use other strategies or if violence erupts near peaceful protests, the legitimacy of the protest is called into question, which tarnishes the consciousness-raising goals of that protest. Third, the association of black people's freedom movements with violence is a racist attempt to categorize black people as inherently violent. This is not a new strategy. In 1895, journalist and activist Ida B. Wells published the Red Record. This hundred-page pamphlet, which focuses on racist justifications for lynching black bodies in the Reconstruction Era, identifies three primary reasons for lynching: [End Page 150] race riots, no Negro domination, and the rape of white women (671–672). As contemporary critics and politicians label protests against police brutality as "violent," there becomes a justification for the dehumanizing treatment that people of color face at the hands of law enforcement officials.

This characterization extends...


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pp. 149-157
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2020
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