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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 17, 2014

Momentous Times For Voting Rights

Every year Martin Luther King, Jr. Day provides a time to reflect on how far we have come in the quest for civil rights and how much more we have to do.  Two momentous developments in voting rights law give us reason to hope that 2014 will be a good year for ensuring that, nearly 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), all Americans can exercise their fundamental right to vote.

Yesterday, members of Congress set aside their partisan differences and introduced crucial new legislation to fix the gaping hole in the VRA created by the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Shelby County v. Holdermlk-voting-rights-adlIn June the Supreme Court struck down the part of the law that determined which states and localities with a history of discriminatory voting practices would have to “pre-clear” their laws with the federal government, essentially gutting the heart of the legislation.  In the 5-4 opinion Chief Justice Roberts said that “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.” 

Congress heard that call.  The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (H.R. 3899/S. 1945) creates a new formula to determine which jurisdictions must pre-clear their laws going forward.  It also strengthens courts’ abilities to monitor localities that implement discriminatory voting laws, makes it easier for voters to spot voting rights violations, and reduces hurdles to fixing discriminatory voting laws.  The bill is not perfect, but it provides a very good starting point for ensuring that all Americans will be able to make their voices heard in the democratic process.  ADL looks forward to working with members of Congress to strengthen the bill even further, and to passing meaningful reform.

In another victory for voting rights, today a judge in Pennsylvania, in a case called Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, struck down the state’s law requiring voters to show one of an enumerated list of government-issued photo identification to be able to vote.  Recognizing that “the overwhelming evidence reflects that there are hundreds of thousands of qualified voters who lack compliant ID,” and that “disenfranchising voters through no fault of the voter himself is plainly unconstitutional,” the judge struck down the voter ID law.  He concluded that “voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.”  Studies have consistently shown that voter ID laws, like the one struck down today in Pennsylvania, disproportionately impact minority, low income, elderly, and young voters.   Today’s ruling clears the way for more citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote.

Days before we celebrate MLK Day we are heartened to know that Dr. King’s legacy of fighting for civil rights and equality for all lives on.  Dr. King once famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”  Over the last two days we have taken two steps forward on that arc, getting closer to a day when all Americans will be able to exercise their right to vote, free of discriminatory hurdles.

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