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March 26, 2015 2

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 1

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 0

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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