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Teach Students: Dr. King Day is NOT a Black Holiday!

By Marilyn Rhames — January 23, 2013 3 min read
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By now you know the script: The first African-American president Barack Obama holding his second inauguration on the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday, 50 years after King delivered his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, and 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a vital precursor to the Thirteenth Amendment which freed the slaves.

First Lady Michelle Obama wowing millions with her bold new bangs and that amazing navy blue silk swing coat.

The crowd. The singers. The pomp and circumstance. The diversity. This is the America that Declaration of Independence demanded, but one our founding fathers would not risk their fortunes to promote.

Sadly, I’m finding that many children don’t know the civil rights story, and some of those who do know don’t make a personal connection to it. In other words, too many students think King fought for black people and that Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and whites need to find their own holiday.

I drew this conclusion from a series of conversations I had with students yesterday. They didn’t know that some public swimming pools in California in the 1930s were open to whites only, forcing not just blacks, but Asians to swim separately. What’s more, they didn’t know that while whites were lynching blacks in the South, a large number of Latinos, mostly Mexicans, were being lynched in the nation’s Southwest. They learned that women, too, were given more rights in the work place as a result of King’s activism.

During the discussion, an 8th grade Hispanic student told me he thought Dr. King and Abraham Lincoln were friends, working together to free the slaves. This was the same student who, in the 4th grade, looked me in the eye and said Obama should not be elected president because black people are “gangsters.”

“Oh, but not you, Ms. Rhames,” he added.

Yesterday I combined my 8th grade advisory with two others and showed the group of 40 students excerpts of the civil rights documentary “Martin Luther King Jr.: More Than a Dream.” Most of the students were Hispanic and some of them were laughing at how the elder black freedom fighters now looked, mumbling jokes about their hair and facial features. Other students were bored by the history lesson, trying to chat with their friends.

I started to get upset. One mind said, They are just kids; they don’t mean any harm. But another mind said, These children have no respect, and if they don’t get it now they never will!

So I attempted to correct this problem in my reading class. I read aloud from the book Black & White: The Confrontation Between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor. The students had to compare and contrast the characters of the persistent black preacher and the stubborn white politician. They also had to find connections to the story, and that’s when lightbulbs of understanding began to glow.

America’s classrooms have much work to do regarding race relations. From the lack of diversity within the teaching profession (one white colleague confided that she never had a black teacher until she reached graduate school) to the racist interactions between students (my daughter in first grade was ridiculed for being black three times by her white and Hispanic classmates during the few months of school) to the systemic emphasis on ancient European history over more culturally relevant social studies instruction.

Teachers across America got Monday off to observe Dr. King Day, so we must work twice as hard to ensure that our students understand that King’s civil rights fight wasn’t just for black people. King was inspired by the nonviolent Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, and Latinos, Asians, Jews, and white Protestants marched alongside him.

Everybody reaps the benefits that diversity and human justice bring. King’s prolific dream isn’t realized until all students, regardless of race, understand their integral role in the success of America.

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