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March 26, 2015

50 Years Later: Bending the Arc of the Moral Universe Towards Justice

Fifty years ago yesterday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a crowd of 20,000 people, many of whom had marched for a week from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to advocate for voting rights.  Their arrival was triumphant, after the first attempt had left the non-violent marchers bloodied and beaten—but not defeated—by police officers in Selma two-and-a-half weeks before. As he stood on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery and reflected on the journey of the civil rights movement, Dr. King rhetorically asked, “How long will it take?” and famously answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” martin-luther-king-jr

As with any long arc, it is almost impossible to see progress from up close.  Each small, incremental change seems insignificant from that vantage point.  Yet taking a step back and looking at the trajectory over the past 50 years reveals how every small step has contributed to bending the arc just a little bit further towards justice.

Today, the United States has the first African American president and there are almost seven times as many African American elected officials as there were in 1970, when researchers first began tracking the numbers. The 2012 election marked the first election in which African Americans voted at a higher rate than whites.  None of that would have been possible without the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which in turn would never have come to be without the tireless, daily efforts of countless individuals.  From the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to register voters, to the people who fearlessly faced police officers with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the advocates who lobbied for passage of the bill and the lawyers who argued in court for it to be upheld, each had a small part in bending the arc.

In other areas of civil rights, too, each incremental step seems small up close but contributes to the greater trajectory.  Today, as the United States hopefully stands on the eve of marriage equality for all, it is clear that many small steps combined to get us here.  From the protesters at Stonewall to the seven couples who brought a case in Massachusetts that would ultimately make it the first state with marriage equality, from the members of the LGBT community who came out when it was very difficult to do so to their allies who spoke up and spoke out about LGBT rights, each person and action had a small part to play.  In the area of women’s rights, the women who convened a meeting in Seneca Falls to write the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, the suffragettes, the women who had careers long before it was socially accepted, those who courageously came forward to speak about sexual harassment, and the men who supported equal pay for equal work all put small cracks in the glass ceiling.  Together, all the advocates, activists, allies, and people who simply spoke up played a part in bending the arc.

The lessons of Selma are about securing the fundamental right to vote for all and civil rights more broadly.  But they are also about what can happen over time if each person plays a part in advancing civil rights, speaking up for social justice, and moving the ball forward just the tiniest bit.  Fifty years after Selma, we are much further along the arc and much closer to a perfect union, but each of us has a role to play every day in determining the trajectory from here.

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January 14, 2015

Beyond the Dream, Teaching King in Context

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is Monday, January 19, and many educators will take the opportunity to teach about King and his enormous contributions to our society. As educators, how we approach the teaching of this holiday makes an impact on how students understand the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement and whether they make a connection between the past struggles to the current day and their own lives. Here are some thoughts about teaching the topic in a meaningful way:

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, LC-USZ62-126559

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, LC-USZ62-126559

Focus on what Martin Luther King, Jr. represents.  King is an icon, a larger than life figure and a tremendous orator. These characteristics can lead students to believe that he singlehandedly accomplished the goals of the Civil Rights Movement or that they could never be like King.  It’s important to put King’s work into the context of the larger movement of people that he represented.  Students need to know about King’s life, that he was a leader of all types of “ordinary” people, and it was them – people of all ages, all walks of life, all different races and religions – that made the Civil Rights Movement possible.

It is important to understand and teach that the Civil Rights Movement was a strategic, on-going  movement with specific objectives.  Author Bryan Stevenson talks about the idea that people today often think of the civil rights movement as a 3 day event; “Day One, Rosa Parks gave up her seat on a bus; Day Two, Dr. King led a march on Washington; and Day Three, we signed all these laws.”  This simplistic view of the Civil Rights Movement leaves out all of the important elements of strategy, struggle and the actual “movement” of the Civil Rights Movement.

Similarly, it is important to be specific when talking about King and the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King’s legacy cannot be understood without talking about bigotry, race and racism.  That may seem obvious, but often educators are hesitant to talk about race.  With thoughtful preparation, however, these issues can be raised in a developmentally appropriate way.  It’s also really useful to be specific about the aims of the Civil Rights Movement- not just a vague notion of “equality” but a social justice movement that was seeking to end segregation, secure voting rights, advocate for worker’s rights, and address economic disparities.

In this way, we have teaching opportunities that connect the past to current events.  Students can see both the success of the Civil Rights Movement while also connecting to what forms of systemic discrimination and unequal treatment exist today.  For example, examining the Voting Rights Act allows for an opportunity to analyze the 2013 Supreme Court decision which gutted the heart of that law or explore tactics like Voter ID laws which suppress the ability to vote.  Similarly, focusing on the importance of youth involvement and leadership in all aspects of the Civil Rights Movement allows for an opportunity to learn about current activism led by youth.  

We know that no educator has the luxury or time to focus on all aspects of King’s life and the work of the Civil Rights Movement. Choosing one specific aspect of King’s life or the Civil Rights Movement can give students more opportunity to understand and explore, whether focusing on Selma or The Children’s Crusade or the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis.

These are just a few examples of the many different entry points for learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the work of the Civil Rights Movement.  For many, the “go to” entry point is to focus on King’s most famous and most quoted “I Have a Dream” speech, specifically the end with its lyrical, moving repetition. Because this speech has vivid imagery and phrases that make it easy to teach, it can also be oversimplified. We need to go beyond “the Dream” for students to truly make meaning of King’s legacy.  King’s dream was deeply rooted not just in “the American Dream,” but also in that time’s context of discrimination, racism and bigotry.  However we choose to honor King’s legacy this year, students’ learning should also be rooted in those concepts of injustice.

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January 13, 2014

Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service

Five Tips for Working with Children, Tweens, and Teens 

Martin Luther King Jr.

As we honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy through the National Day of Service on January 20, 2014, we encourage teachers, parents and families to provide community service opportunities for children and youth.  Below are tips to help make the experience meaningful.


“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

—Martin Luther King Jr.


1.     Generate service learning ideas from children and youth.

Engage young people in a discussion and brainstorming session about their community, encouraging them to think critically about its most important assets and what areas need more support. The more buy-in youth have from the beginning, the more investment they will have in the project, and it will have a more lasting effect on them and their communities.


2.     Think beyond community service to social action.

While it is important for youth to help others, the experience will have more meaning if they see the big picture.  It is one thing to spend a few hours at a homeless shelter distributing lunch;  take the service project to another level by helping young people understand why people are homeless and what they can do about it.  Engage youth in social-action strategies, such as writing letters; social media campaigns, including online petitions and donations; engaging in advocacy to get a law or bill passed; creating PSAs (public service announcements); and delivering speeches.


3.     Use the experience as an opportunity to build empathy.

Service provides a rich opportunity for youth to develop empathy for others, especially those who are in need.  As they are serving, make sure young people see the complexity and humanity in the people they serve.  Prepare children for the experience by answering their questions, listening to their fears and dispelling their misconceptions.


4.     Be aware of bias-related language and be careful not to perpetuate stereotypes.

Make sure the experience helps youth connect with the people they are serving rather than perpetuate stereotypes. Address thinking that focuses on pity or simplistic understanding of people’s circumstances. Guide to move beyond thinking of people as the “other” (i.e., “not one of us”) to understanding and respecting their humanity.. Remind youth to use language that does not equate people with their characteristics or actions (i.e., say “people with disabilities, not “disabled people”; say “youth who bully,” rather than “bullies”).


5.     Inspire children and youth to change the world.

Convey the message to youth that they can change the world.  Even a small, one-time action of helping their neighbors and communities can have a deep impact on a young person.


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