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Would Dr. King be allowed to teach antiracism in Missouri schools?

The famous civil rights icon is universally celebrated half a century after his death, but his sharp political rhetoric provoked outrage and anger while he was alive

ST. LOUIS, Missouri — Fifty-five years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, politicians of every party praise his name, throw parades in his honor, and post his most famous quotes on their social media pages. 

The posthumous honors, which includes the only federal holiday designated by Congress as a national day of service, stand in stark contrast to the fierce criticism and controversy King faced while he was still alive. 

"They demonized Dr. King," U.S. Congresswoman Cori Bush said outside the steps of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis on Monday morning.

Bush and other local dignitaries gathered at the historic site to kick off a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. 

"It was behind these walls that Dred Scott and Harriet Scott, a Black enslaved man, sued for his freedom," Bush told the crowd. "It's that same legacy of dehumanization, discrimination and white supremacy that Dr. King and so many others fought so hard to defeat. It's the same one that we fight now."

"We know our work to achieve Dr. King's vision is far from over," Bush told the crowd, in part because of what she described as "further emboldened white supremacy that I get to sit next to every day in the halls of Congress."

Bush and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones both addressed the crowd and alluded to the political opposition King faced while he was alive. 

"At the time, [Dred Scott's] fight was mocked, and derided," Jones said. "And in his time Dr. King was too. His ideas were deemed too radical. And even today, [there are] those who try to wash away Dr. King's idea of service for their own regressive agendas."

Long before Dr. King met with presidents, popes, and kings, the antiracist orator met the blunt end of batons, the bite of police dogs, and brutality of prison guards. That bitter sting of racism left the civil rights icon with a cynical analysis of power and politics in America. 

"The disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic," Dr. King told a crowd at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. 

Half a century later, many of the same leading voices in Missouri politics who celebrate King's life warn of a different kind of "poison:" the kind they say teaches students about "radical" concepts such as privilege and oppression. 

Before he won his U.S. Senate race, Missouri's Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued school districts where teachers held "privilege walks" to demonstrate examples of systemic racism lingering in modern societal structures. Signs of Schmitt's stance against the anti-racism movement reappeared in Jefferson City after the midterm elections.

Schmitt's suits were unsuccessful in court, but a flurry of proposals resurfaced in the Missouri legislature that would threaten to punish school districts that engage in any discussion that leave students feeling a sense of "collective guilt" for the national sins of racism or slavery. 

Most of the proposals include boilerplate language from similar GOP measures filed in other state legislatures. They threaten school districts with fines or legal liability if they violate a vague standard set in the bill: "No school or school employee shall compel a teacher or student to adopt, affirm, adhere to, or profess ideas ...that individuals, by virtue of their race, ethnicity, color, or national origin, bear collective guilt and are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, ethnicity, color, or national origin."

"It depends on what you mean by guilt," St. Louis University Professor Nathan Grant said on Monday afternoon. "Guilt can be the kind of thing that burdens you. It can also be an excellent motivator. If you're burdened by the guilt, if you are unduly shamed by it, if you are incapacitated by it in any way that's not productive, that can't help make a better America. But it seems to me that if you are motivated by the guilt to do good, to hold hands with your neighbor, or to try and make things better, to try to realize an America that can work for everyone, then guilt is useful."

Grant, a rhetorical expert, said the proposal could have the effect of outlawing or restricting parts of Dr. King's most famous speeches or writings. The pastor often famously pointed direct fingers of blame at entire groups of people, such as "white moderates" in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail

In the speech he gave at the National Cathedral, King told the crowd "racial injustice is still the Black man's burden and the white man's shame."

"Everyone must share in the guilt as individuals and as institutions," Dr. King said. "The government must certainly share the guilt; individuals must share the guilt; even the church must share the guilt."

State Senator Nick Schroer (R-O'Fallon) filed one of the Missouri measures to crack down on "critical race theory" in public school classrooms because he claims those antiracist concepts include "components of blaming let's say anybody that is Caucasian as being an oppressor."

Schroer said his proposal seeks "to prevent any form of indoctrination, any form of third party infiltration into the history books."

"I think that that's a dangerous thing that the Right is trying to do with respect to curtailing the speech of educators," Grant, who is also the Editor of the African American Review, said on Monday afternoon.

"You can't have the kind of America you think you want if you're prepared to do that," Grant said. "We're seeing this sort of thing happen in other countries around the world and we decry it. I don't know why we seem to want to uphold it here."

Mayor Jones said Republicans who recoil at critical race theory or antiracism remind her of the old phrase "the truth hurts."

"They don't know their history," Jones said. "It really makes me sad that we can't rely on our teachers — to no fault of their own — who got into this profession to teach our history: good, bad, and indifferent."

The mayor, who became the first Black woman to hold the highest office in St. Louis in 2021, said Dr. King himself would "absolutely not" be allowed to teach in Missouri schools if Schroer's bill became law. 

"We have to have those difficult conversations, or else we're doomed to repeat them," Jones said.

In a recent interview on The Record, Schroer showed an eagerness to point to the past with a finger of blame when he could lay that blame at the feet of his partisan opponents and their predecessors.

"We need to learn the history of the Democratic Party fighting many years ago to stop the civil rights movement, enacting Jim Crow laws, and so many things like that," he said. 

Grant acknowledged educating children about complex social issues can carry some complicated challenges, especially early in their educational development. 

"An educator under the worst circumstances can not only turn a child off to learning, but can actually poison thinking, or send it off in the wrong direction, just as a parent can," he said. "I think we have to be very careful about the kinds of things we say and the ways in which we say them. That doesn't mean that we have to exclude the truth, however. Sometimes the truth is a very painful thing."

Grant says despite signs of re-emerging protest or pushback against reparations or antiracism, King's message remains far more powerful than those who would punish teachers for spreading it. 

"Every day, you see ways in which whites are joining hands with Blacks to try and make a better America," he said. "We need more hands on deck. We need everybody on deck. 

"It's not enough simply to say, 'Oh, I'm just feeling terrible about American history.' And, 'Well, I can't do anything about it because it happened so long ago.' Fact of the matter is that it's still happening," he said. "If you're looking at inequality in education, in housing, in income, if you're looking at income equity, these things can be remedied, and they can be remedied by the kind of guilt that makes you get up in the morning, roll up your sleeves and get to work."

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