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 is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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