Teaching Martin Luther King and the myth of the outside agitator.

rahm and bull

Melinda Anderson has a really good article in The Atlantic on teaching Martin Luther King and the perils, difficulties and benefits of teaching a social social justice curriculum.

Now 50 years later, seventh- and eighth-graders at Seward Academy on Chicago’s South Side study King and the very issue that brought him to their city. The Chicago teacher Gregory Michie says his lessons on the social-justice icon are designed to upend what he views as a simplistic and clichéd image often presented in schools. Since many of his students know King’s famous excerpt hoping for a day when no one is judged by the color of their skin, Michie’s social-studies class zeroes in on lesser-known sections of the “I Have a Dream” speech, like the “fierce urgency of now” and “tranquilizing drug of [white] gradualism.” The youngsters quickly realize that they’ve never really heard the full message of the speech, he said, and “it’s a lot more nuanced, and more fiery, than they’d thought.”

What has been lost in the King-as-dreamer mythology is that every place he went, including here in Chicago, he was branded an outside agitator by the white segregationist politicians in power, including the elder Mayor Richard Daley.

As we honored Dr. King this past weekend, that myth of social justice freedom fighters as outside agitators continues.

Mick Dumke reports in the Sun-Times today that following the release of the Laquan McDonald video, Mayor Rahm’s staff was spreading the word that outside agitators from Ferguson and Baltimore were invading the city to create violence.

As Emanuel went on to a holiday tree-lighting ceremony at Millennium Park, protesters took to downtown streets.

“I just got word from some of our friends, protest groups (outsiders from Baltimore, Ferguson etc) have arrived to city and will begin to mass at City Hall,” Henry wrote to other aides the next morning. “I was also told we should prepare for more aggressive, direct‐action, confrontations with CPD.”

This was, of course, a lie.

Who is “Henry.”

(Vance) Henry is a City Hall veteran who served as Mayor Richard M. Daley‘s director of the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), the Police Department’s community-policing effort.

In December 2004, the Tribune reported that questions from federal drug investigators about a relationship between Henry and an indicted gang kingpin prompted a months-long Chicago police internal-affairs investigation.

At the time, Henry said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had questioned him about his relationship with the alleged founder of the Mafia Insane Vice Lords, who had been arrested in May in a massive federal drug-conspiracy case.

The drug kingpin, Troy Martin, was a convicted murderer who later was found guilty in the federal case. Martin was a member of a church where Henry was an associate pastor. Henry said that he knew Martin through the church for several years and that other church officials suggested he offer advice to Martin through the church’s ex-offender program.

“I was assigned by my church to help an ex-offender,” Henry said. Their discussions took place mostly at church, but Henry did not recall when they began or how many times they spoke.

An October 2013 Tribune series, “Poverty and Profit,” cited public records in which Henry is listed as going to bat at Daley’s City Hall for a West Side developer who wanted to rehab and manage troubled apartment buildings despite a pattern of racking up unpaid taxes, fines and building code violations, including citations for tenants going without heat.

City payroll records now list Henry as a $145,000-a-year assistant to Emanuel.

Whether it was Bull Connor in Birmingham in 1963 or Rahm Emanuel in 2016, the myth of the outside agitator is in the bag of tricks of opportunist and racist politicians.

3 Replies to “Teaching Martin Luther King and the myth of the outside agitator.”

  1. Not exactly on point, but I gotta think that MLK would be horrified that his “day” has become is a “day off” for many Americans. I’m sure he would have wished (and I agree) that it should be a day of study and racial reconciliation, where all–especially all schools–spend a day discussing race: it’s causes, persistence, and the myriad problems it causes for the American experiment.
    Let’s face it: politicians designed Martin Luther King day as a “holiday” because it was easy. “Well, I voted for that; now I don’t have to think about it any more and I’ve offended the fewest people possible.”

    1. Your points are well taken, Randy. However, remember that the establishment of a federal holiday for Martin Luther King was the result of a struggle and a demand. It was also resisted by those who objected to giving the kind of respect afforded national leaders with white skin to a national leader with black skin. Discussion of race and racism is something that ought to be part of the classroom curriculum every day. If that were to happen, a school holiday for Dr. King could be used for what it was intended by those of us who demanded it: A day to honor a great man.

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