We Turned Dr. King into Tony the Tiger

"Why did someone shoot Martin Luther King?" Joel asked.

"Well, he stood for some things that really made people angry," I say.

"But he seems so nice. He just wanted people to get along," Joel says.

"It was more than that, Joel." So, I go into the realities of racism. He sees images of the water fountains and the segregated housing and we talk about why people in power would want to keep power away from a marginalized minority (though I don't put it in those terms exactly)

It's a hard conversation and I keep wondering if I'm messing it up. I show him some fragments of King's speeches and it's eye-popping for Joel.

"So, he wasn't soft, Joel. He used non-violence, but he also used some angry words. He was all about non-violence and love, but he was also about fighting for what's right."

Joel nods his head. "That's not at all the way he seems at school."

The school system has made such a cartoon out of King, not unlike Tony the Tiger. A nice man, full of smiling platitudes, ready to join hands and talk about peace. He is the man who fights for talks about unity without ever addressing division.  A racial cheerleader. He is grrreat!

My students are shocked when they meet the real man, in his words. I don’t start with “I Have a Dream,” not because I don’t like it, but because it is so layered with meaning and figurative language and difficult clauses that my students don’t understand it at first. It’s not simply an ELL issue, either. My gifted kids struggled with the text in past years. Most Americans don’t get it for that matter. He wrote intelligently and forcefully.

He wasn't Tony the Tiger.

So, I start with “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and we take our time to make sense out of it. Students are often shocked by King in his own words. First, they struggle with how eloquent he is. Somehow the cultural stereotypes have made it impossible for them to believe (even though they are students of color) that he would speak with such poetic language. Next, they’re shocked by the razor sharp logic and keen intellect he uses. Finally, they’re shocked that he was not a nice man. His anger often bothers them.

Sometimes they miss Tony the Tiger.

Then he becomes real. A force to be reckoned with. He’s no longer a cartoon and he becomes a hero again. But it requires his own words, parsed out slowly, in difficult language, talked about in hard conversation, for him to come to life again.

And I squirm, knowing that I’m coming from the power culture, that so much of it is just white noise to me. I get restless and nervous, knowing that I benefit from the culture that turned Dr. King into a cartoon.
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. Thank you for your honest reflection about the conversation with your son. We have made him into a cartoon character and educators like you who keep the real man in the proper context. It's difficult to face our history, but it's so important to remind students where we've been so there is greater appreciation for today and tomorrow.

    Be Great,


    1. Thanks! It's hard to fight against the cartoon version, because that version is so nice and so unoffensive.

  2. We turn all of our historical figures into little figurines that fit nicely into our pockets. Washington had the cherry tree, Lincoln simply freed the slaves, Helen Keller was blind and deaf, Rosa Parks was some little old lady on a bus who wasn't protesting a thing (*eyeroll*) ... I could go on. We don't want people to see our characters for who they are because: A) there's not enough time for in-depth exploration in the curriculum; B) showing how flawed our historical heroes are doesn't forward "American Exceptionalism;" and C) it, quite frankly, makes people uncomfortable to think of those "heroes" as anything less than what they see when they see their figurine.

    1. Yep.

      Although I always like pointing out the holes in the myths when I could teaching US History.

    2. That's the best way to teach history! Heroes only become heroic when we see that they were also anti-heroes.

  3. Thank you for this post. I have to assume that there are people at John's school who, if they know he is trying to turn Dr. King from a cartoon character back into a man, are very upset. People sometimes like their myths and their heroes more than they like reality. You are a talented teacher if you are able to get students to see complexity and ambiguity; you are a lucky teacher if your school even just tolerates such pedagogy. If you work in a place that encourages it, let me know when there's an opening.

    1. I'm guessing there are a few people who might rip me for it. So far it hasn't been a big issue, though.

  4. "And I squirm, knowing that I’m coming from the power culture, that so much of it is just white noise to me. I get restless and nervous, knowing that I benefit from the culture that turned Dr. King into a cartoon."

    Thank you for saying this. I too struggle constantly with how to deal with the fact of my own privilege...it can be very hard as a white teacher with students of color to have a clue how to approach some of these complex issues. I'm not teaching US history currently, but I am teaching AP US government, and boy, does it come up a lot. I am blessed to have some incredibly brave students who often speak out and address their peers misconceptions and privilege before I can even formulate a good response. When that happens I try to remember to show my support but otherwise let them handle it--nothing worse than trying to jump in on their experience.

    1. It sounds like you are a phenomenal history / government teacher. Those are the teachers students remember and those are the ones who help develop democratic citizens.


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