|Children's Books on Marting Luther King, Jr. Offer a One-Dimensional View
By Beryle Banfield
The forthcoming national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. will undoubtedly be marked by various classroom projects and school assemblies. Many teachers will ask students to research Dr. King’s life for reports, classroom discussions and the like. What will students learn if they consult the books that are currently available?
To find out, a total of 12 books were reviewed. Of these, nine titles are currently in print; the others were included because they are available at local libraries and thus likely to be referred to by students as well. (See the annotated list of titles at the end of this article.)
It would have been most gratifying to report that the children’s materials on King would lead to a greater appreciation of this great leader—the nature of his leadership, the ways in which he responded to the historic events of his times and how he in turn shaped history. Instead, almost all of the books present students from the earliest grades on with one-dimensional portraits of King and his philosophy.
Essentially, the same facts are presented to all students, whatever the grade level. The books cover King’s birth in Atlanta into middle-class circumstances, his early experiences with racism, his education, his marriage to Coretta Scott, his exposure to Gandhi’s philosophy, his Civil Rights activities and his assassination. Most books focus on King’s use of non-violence, but without fully presenting the sophisticated philosophy that undergird the choice of this particular tactic to bring about social change. Only the level of vocabulary and quantity of detail differentiate materials designed for students of different age levels. The danger exists that as students move through the grades and experience the annual celebrations of King’s birthday, they will become bored with the recycling of information that does nothing to deepen their understanding of King and his times.
More significant than what is included in these books is what is omitted. None of the texts—even those for older children—place King fully in the context of the historical developments of his times or adequately note his relationships to other key figures and organizations of the Civil Rights movement. There is no attempt to examine the process by which racism became institutionalized in the South, nor is there information about the continuing effort of African Americans and their allies to eradicate this evil.
Significantly, the texts do not portray King as a person who was continually growing and whose vision was constantly expanding. Instead, he is presented as a person whose vision and thought remained fixed in time, not moving beyond the celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech of August 28, 1963. Yet the years following 1963 were years of tremendous growth and deepened insight. King was uncompromising in his stand against racism in the United States. He asserted that "for too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated.... [It] is important to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease." King also warned that any attempt to "try to temporize, negotiate small inadequate changes, and prolong the timetable of freedom with the hope that the narcotics of delay will dull the pain of progress would certainly fail.2 These very strong feelings against racism are nowhere discussed in the works reviewed.
Neither do any of the works discuss King’s "Beyond Vietnam" speech, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. The delivery of this speech was an act of great personal and moral courage, which demonstrated beyond all doubt King’s unswerving commitment to social justice. In this speech, which made him the object of attack by the President of the United States and by other Civil Rights leaders, King used his skills of social analysis to make the connection between the oppression of the poor in the United States and the warm Vietnam. He called for a shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society as a means of conquering the "giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism." None of the materials examined permit students to become acquainted with these views of Dr. King and to develop an appreciation for the strength it took for him to stand up to those who opposed his position on Vietnam.
In addition, students are not given the opportunity to examine the influences that shaped King’s philosophy or their significance. Mohandas K. Gandhi is often mentioned as a key influence in King’s life, but there were others. First, there were his grandfather and his father, both preachers, both pioneers in the Black protest movement of their times. A.D. Williams, his grandfather, was a leader in the Atlanta Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. who organized the Black community to demand equal educational facilities. When a major newspaper carried derogatory articles about African Americans and their activities, A.D. Williams organized a successful boycott that led to the newspaper’s demise. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., led a struggle to secure equal pay for Black teachers in Atlanta. His civil rights activities earned Martin Luther King, Sr. the enmity of the Ku Klux Klan, which made threats against his life.
Thus, from early childhood, Martin Luther King, Jr. had as role models two fearless Black men committed to the struggle against racism. King was also impressed by the ability of his father and grandfather to move huge crowds by their eloquence. By the age of six he had made a conscious decision to learn how to use words as a weapon and as an instrument of persuasion. (Frederick Douglass, the early Black leader of undisputed oratorical gifts, was another boyhood idol.)
Two strong Black women—his grandmother, Mama Williams, and his mother Alberta—played key roles during the formative years of young Martin’s life. Coretta Scott King, his wife, also played an important role, supporting his decision to return to the South and work for the elimination of racism.
Personal experience with Jim Crow laws dictated King’s first career choice:
He originally intended to become a lawyer and play an active role in eliminating racial barriers. He attended Morehouse College of Atlanta, Georgia, an acknowledged training ground for Black leadership. (Both A.D. Williams and Martin Luther King, Sr. had attended Morehouse. The president of Morehouse. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, through his brilliant and socially relevant sermons, influenced King to make the ministry his life’s work, convincing King that through the ministry he could translate his passion for social justice into social action. And it was another Morehouse graduate, Dr. Mordecai Johnson. president of Howard University and also a Baptist preacher, who inspired King to delve further into the teachings of Gandhi.
Finally, there was the influence of the African American church and the traditional deep religious feelings of the African American people. As he developed, King came to see these as a source of strength and moral commitment of Black peoples.
All of the factors cited above need to be addressed in any work on Martin Luther King for grade 4 upward. To do less is to diminish the nature of the man and to do the children of the country a disservice.
When referring to the accompanying list of books examined, the user is cautioned that none of these materials is wholly satisfactory. They need to be supplemented with excerpts from King’s speeches and writings such as Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Harper & Row, 1958), Why We Can’t Wait (Harper & Row, 1963), "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (included in Why We Can’t Wait) and "Beyond Vietnam" (Clergy and Laity Concerned, 1982).
MATERIALS EXAMINED Children’s Books
Benjamin Franklin/Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stella H. Alico. Pendulum Press (West Haven, CT), 1979, gr. 4—6.
In Search of Peace The Story of Four Americans Who Won the Nobel Peace Prize by Roberta Strauss Feyerlicht. Julian Messner, 1970, gr. 5.
The Life and Death of Martin Luther King by James Haskins. Lothrop, Lee, Shepard, 1977, gr. 8—12.
Martin Luther King. Jr. by Beth P. Wilson, illustrated by Floyd Sewell. Putnam's, 1971, gr. 2–4, o.p.
Martin Luther King by Rae Bains, Illustrated by Hal French. Troll Associates, 1985, gr. 2–3.
Martin Luther King, Jr. by Jacqueline Harris. Franklin Watts, 1983, gr. 7–up.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Man to Remember by Patricia McKissack. Children’s Press, 1984, gr. 6–up.
Martin Luther King, The Man Who Climbed the Mountain by Gary Paulsen and Dan Theis. Raintree (distributed by Children’s Press), 1976, gr. 6, o.p.
Martin Luther King: The Peaceful Warrior by Ed Clayton, illustrated by David Hodges. Prentice-Hall (Archway Paperback), 1968, gr. 6–up.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Story of a Dream by Judith Behrens, illustrated by Anne Siberell. Children’s Press, 1979, gr. 3–4.
1Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper & Row, 1968, p. 130.