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The myths we teach children about Martin Luther King Jr., explained by an ’80s board game

And the important facts we leave out of the narrative.

50th anniversary MLK assassination Jonathan Eig

A few months ago, while shopping on eBay, I came across the Martin Luther King Jr. Game — manufactured in 1986, intended for players ages 6 to adult, and billed as “an educational and entertaining game about America’s greatest black leader.”

Was there really fun for the whole family in a game based on the life of America’s great martyr for civil rights? It took only $27.99 to satisfy my curiosity.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Game is a little like Chutes and Ladders. Players spin to decide how far they’ll advance on the board, then follow the directions for whatever space they land on. If you land on a space with a picture of Dr. King, you draw a “Decision” card, read the back of the card, and choose one of two options. One decision card reads: “WED CORETTA SCOTT OR SWITCH PLACES WITH THE PLAYER TO YOUR LEFT.” Another says: “GO TO BIRMINGHAM JAIL AND WRITE A LETTER OR LOSE ONE TURN.”

If you land on a space marked “QUOTES,” you read from a Quote card and move the indicated number of spaces. One card says, “We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools. +1 Space.” Another says, “The Negro’s agony diminishes the white man, and the Negro’s salvation enlarges the white man. + 3 Spaces.”

In 1963, while sitting in his Birmingham jail cell, King wrote: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” That quote doesn’t appear on any of the cards in the Martin Luther King Jr. Game, but it compelled me to consider whether the game fostered the kind of shallow understanding King disdained.

After my 8-year-old daughter and I played a few times, I had my answer.

It’s a fast-moving game. Players travel chronologically across and up and the board, from King’s birth on January 15, 1929, to his ordination as a Baptist minister, the Montgomery bus boycott, his incarceration in Birmingham, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Poor People’s Campaign, and so on.

To the game-maker’s credit, they include a place on the board for King’s assassination. But the action doesn’t end there. Instead, the winner needs to move two more spaces past the assassination, from 1968 to 1986, when King is honored with a federal holiday.

It’s not difficult to understand why Cadaco, the white-owned manufacturer, made that the last square on the board, especially considering that the game was released in 1986 and probably sought to capitalize on the excitement generated by the commemoration of the holiday. But three decades later, it’s clear that creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day cannot be viewed as a game-ending victory, not in the Martin Luther King Jr. Game and certainly not in modern America.

What we leave out when we teach kids about Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, we tend to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day by celebrating shared values such as peace and equality. We teach children that King had a dream that his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters.

But we seldom ask schoolchildren to read King’s books. And we seldom discuss what often comes as a backlash to progress, as Ibram X. Kendi has written so powerfully. Nor do we discuss economic injustice, a part of King’s message that’s been whitewashed almost into oblivion.

We forget, for example, that the full name of the legendary March on Washington was actually the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King warned that ending legal segregation would not end inequality, and he began talking about concepts such as guaranteed jobs and guaranteed income.

After King’s death, racism roared and became part of a political philosophy that sought to hide its bias. Voting rights eroded, schools resegregated, and incarceration rates for black men soared. Kendi writes:

A new vocabulary emerged, allowing users to evade admissions of racism. It still holds fast after all these years. The vocabulary list includes these: law and order. War on drugs. Model minority. Reverse discrimination. Race neutral. Welfare queen. Handout. Tough on crime. Personal responsibility. Black-on-black crime. Achievement gap. No excuses. Race card. Colorblind. Post racial. Illegal immigrant. Obamacare. War on Cops. Blue Lives Matter. All Lives Matter. Entitlements. Voter fraud.

I wish the creators of the Martin Luther King Jr. Game had included the setbacks experienced by King and others in the civil rights movement. Players should lose turns when the FBI taps their phones, when bombs explode at their homes, or when they’re attacked by angry mobs, arrested, or hit in the head with rocks while leading peaceful marches for fair housing.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of King’s death, we should strive to get past the lukewarm acceptance exemplified in this game, in street namings and countless other well-intentioned tributes. We should remember the racism that so violently fueled opposition to the civil rights movement — and that hardly disappeared when segregation receded.

We should reflect on the role discrimination played then and continues to play now in creating racial disparities. We should think about how to fight our own racist ideas, even the subtle ones.

Commemorating King, whether on his birthday or on the day of his assassination, shouldn’t suggest that this symbol of the civil rights movement is a part of history long gone. It should serve as a reminder that the struggle continues, that the fight for equality is really the fight for democracy, and that King’s words still have the power to shake our complacency and call us to action.

As King wrote in another section of his letter from the Birmingham jail, we must “create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

I wish that were one of the quotes in the game.

Jonathan Eig, author of Ali: A Life, is working on a biography of Martin Luther King Jr.


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