The birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gives me the occasion to reflect on my own education in the importance of race in American history. A few years back, I had the opportunity to teach a class on US history since the end of the Civil War. I designed the course to follow the narrative of the Republican Party, from the party of Lincoln to the party of the New Right. I intended to focus on issues of class; I was particularly interested in talking about the Democrats losing workers and middle-class folks. That was the idea, anyway. But the course quickly shifted focus to race, no matter how hard I (and a few of my students) tried to bring it back to class. There were the usual suspects, of course: Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, etc. But there were unexpected moments when race came to the center: how race shaped the Populist and Progressive movements; how the New Deal simultaneously ignored, challenged, and supported existing racial dynamics; how race and racism helped end the New Deal coalition and Democratic rule; etc..
I’m not all that naive; I had “known” for a long time that race was and is important to understanding US history. But it wasn’t until that course that I understood it in a much deeper way. The evolution of the course forced an intellectual reconsideration: my simplistic Marxism was challenged; I could no longer simply dismiss race and racism as direct manifestations of the class struggle–a misleadingly easy narrative. It was personal and emotional, too, for if I could have gone so long basically ignoring race, what did that say about me? Finally, the course had pedagogical implications; I knew then how irresponsible it would be to teach a course without recognizing race as the core issue in American history.
All of this is nothing, of course, compared to what Dr. King went through and accomplished. But the least I can do is recognize how his life’s work is absolutely fundamental to the work of the American historian, particularly when we teach.