Equity & Diversity Opinion

Wisdom From Dr. King Helps Center My Education Activism

By Marilyn Rhames — January 17, 2012 3 min read
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Like many of you, I spent some time on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday reflecting on his life and legacy. I attended a commemoration service with my two little girls, and I listened to a choir sing the old Negro spirituals. I sang along and shed some tears. Like many of you, Dr. King is my hero.

I left wondering what Dr. King would say about the state of racial affairs in America today. I wondered what he would say about our educational system, in particular. At 83, would an older, wiser Dr. King schedule another March on Washington to express his displeasure? Or would our educational system be better off by now because of his activism? Would he organize 1,700 sit-ins in the lobbies of the so-called “dropout factories,” American high schools with no more than a 60 percent graduation rate? Or would Dr. King hold advisory meetings with President Barack Obama, the first black president consulting the second, or perhaps the third?

I took time to reread Dr. King’s lengthy “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and his “I Have a Dream” speech. In his letter from jail, Dr. King states that his philosophy of love and nonviolent protest was awkwardly couched between the “do nothingism” of the white moderate religious leaders who wanted to wait for freedom to naturally kick in and the black nationalists whose “bitterness and hatred” of whites threatened bloodshed in their demand for basic human rights.

Some say that equity in education is the chief civil rights issue of our day. Although the conflict is far less physically dangerous, I feel similar tensions exist in current education policy debates. In this era, there are those who argue that every proposed reform idea is wrongheaded; they acknowledge that the situation is bleak but say that it’s better to wait things out for fear that these new innovations could make matters worse. To them I quote Dr. King: “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see ... that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Meanwhile, I am watching frustrated and impatient reformers who, in their attempts to bring educational justice to poor minority children, advocate firings of entire school staffs and punitively pulling the plug on failing schools, violently shaking up lives and communities. They seem to have adopted the mantra of Malcolm X: “By any means necessary.” To those reformers, I also quote Dr. King: “If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.”

I stand with Dr. King and his philosophy. I walk in his shadow as one willing to serve and to be a change agent. I will not accept the status quo. I will not wait, sitting idly by, doing nothing to address the problems that exist in our schools, yet criticizing others who bravely offer their ideas and efforts for change. I will give voice to my outrage and feet to my vision.

But, like Dr. King, my activism is nonviolent, rooted in prayer, grace, and love. I believe the best way to turn around a failing school is to flood it with the supports and resources it needs. This may mean replacing the school’s administration and, yes, some of its teachers. But the indiscriminate dismissal of all school personnel feels hostile, even malicious. Firing good, hardworking teachers in order to get rid of the bad ones feels illogical, demoralizing, and destabilizing—to the adults as well as to the children. It is difficult for trust and respect to develop under those conditions. To quote Dr. King again, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

As I retired from an inspiring evening, I just couldn’t sleep. Echoing in my mind was the resounding voice of Dr. King as he shared his famous dream. In that foggy transitional stage, not fully awake, not fully asleep, I heard these words:

“I have a dream today!

Let freedom ring from every alarm clock that awakens teachers early in the morning!
Let freedom ring from every school bell that proclaims knowledge is freely available!
Let freedom ring from every classroom, rich and poor; for every child, black and white!

I have a dream today!”

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.