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Words of inspiration, reflection on King's birthday

How many young people have never heard more than the most iconic, four-word sound bite associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?
REUTERS/Larry Downing
How many young people have never heard more than the most iconic, four-word sound bite associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Did you know that only 2 percent of U.S. high school students can identify the source of the phrase, "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal"? It's as true in Minnesota, unfortunately, as it is in the rest of the country.

How many young people, then, have never heard more than the most iconic, four-word sound bite associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

And given that Twin Cities schoolchildren are more likely to attend segregated schools than they were when King ignited passions with his "I Have a Dream" speech, how many are deprived of an intimate understanding of the learned experience of pupils of a different race or ethnicity?

In honor of the late reverend's observed birthday, today we offer a round-up of inspiration, reflection and nifty online memorabilia.

'The Purpose of Education'
What did King himself have to say about education? In 1947, while a student at Morehouse College, King laid out his thoughts in "The Purpose of Education," a piece for the student publication The Maroon Tiger. The intervening 65 years have made the words no less relevant.


"As I engage in the so-called 'bull sessions' around and about the school, I too often find that most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the 'brethren' think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end. ...

"At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. ...

"The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. ...

"Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living."

Rep. John Lewis
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Rep. John Lewis

Rep. Lewis on King's greatest speech
Next, how much wisdom and justice have we accumulated in the nearly a half a century since King penned those words? A great deal, and yet not nearly enough, according to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat whose 2008 "Reflections on a Dream Deferred" can be found on the website of the educator magazine Teaching Tolerance.

A snippet:

"In my estimation, the greatest speech Dr. King ever made was delivered at Riverside Baptist Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. I was there in the audience when he began by saying, ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal. … Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in times of war.' He was speaking then about the war in Vietnam. Forty years later, the fundamental assertions made in his speech apply to the war in Iraq today.

" 'A true revolution of values,' he continued, ‘will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth … and say, ‘This is not just.' … A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.' … True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.'"

Have the students in your life been taught that Rosa Parks was simply too tired to ride home on the bus standing up one day? That King was more a fiery orator than a peacemaker?

Or, like my own kids, that "slavery was the start of the Civil Rights Movement." I wish I were kidding; I still have nightmares about watching my youngest sing exactly those words set by his teacher to a Harry Belafonte tune. In 2010. In America.

You'll want to print out this PDF of a four-color comic book inked in 1957, which communicates more about the inception of the civil rights movement in its 16 pages than most of the kids I know learn in 13-plus years of formal schooling.   

The rich Stanford archive
Then traipse on over to Stanford University's online archive of King artifacts, such as this flier urging the historic bus boycott, Rosa Parks' arrest report or this photo of King's firebombed house.

A host more resources are to be found in Teaching Tolerance and in the section of the New York Times' website aimed at teachers.

Inspired? I hope so.

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Comments (4)

“You can tell a Morehouse Man, but you can’t tell him much,”

Your use of King's 'The Purpose of Education' article for the Morehouse student newspaper was probably a bad example to illustrate his view on education in general and on integration in particular since Morehouse was/is an all-male, all-black school. His admonition to his fellow classmates that "the most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals" was an obvious sermon from a future Baptist minister against classmates whom he viewed as arrogant and immoral.

#1: Dennis, I've read your comment three times and I still don't get your point. Why exactly do you think the "Purpose of Education" was a bad example to illustrate King's view of education? Was it because a) in reality he held a different view which this article does not express? b) his views changed over time so that this article does not really represent his mature thinking about education? c) King had no right to talk about education or integration because he attended a segregated all-male school? d) this article really represents King's opinion about his classmates whom he considered arrogant and immoral because they went to a segregated all-male school? e) something else I totally missed?

I'm not suggesting any of these make any sense either but it would be helpful if you clarified what you meant.

Beth introduced the article right after she discusses school integration, as if Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was all about school integration. It wasn't.

And to illustrate that, I made the point that using his school newspaper article as her evidence was flawed because it wasn't about the importance of integrated schools at all. In fact, if King really believed that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" why did he choose to attend a segregated, all-black, all-male school?

The real purpose of his article was to sermonize his classmates about their arrogance and immorality, something anyone familiar with Morehouse relative to other black colleges would be aware of. (Which is why I began the post with that quote, which is common amongst black college students.)

Dennis, you're right about the civil rights movement not being just about school integration. You're also right that "The Purpose of Education" had nothing to do with integrated schools. I see your point about sermonizing his classmates for their arrogance and immorality (really their selfishness, I think). But think about what you said about King "choosing" to attend a segregated, all black, all-male school in 1947 and what happened to James Meredith when he chose to enroll in Ol' Miss in 1962. My point being that there weren't desegregated (white and black) schools in 1947. Not even that many in the North, if any.