01.15.19

Teaching Dr. King, Teaching Ourselves

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Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Image from Bob Fitch photography archive — Martin Luther King Jr. gallery, 1965-1966.

Georgetown University has a tradition for Martin Luther King Jr. Day that we should all join. In 2013, Georgetown incorporated “Teach the Speech” into its “Let Freedom Ring!” Initiative. Now, each year, the university selects a Martin Luther King Jr. speech and, along with a teach-in open to all, encourages all faculty to incorporate the speech into their courses.

Georgetown University urges all members of the Georgetown community to participate in “Teach the Speech.” I would urge that, tailored to their populations, all educational institutions “Teach the Speech,” and further, that all Americans, whether or not affiliated with an educational institution, participate.

Previous featured speeches (and writings) include many of his best known: his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “I Have a Dream” (watch here), “The Other America” (listen here), his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech” (watch here), “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” (watch here), and “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” (listen here).

This year, “Teach the Speech” has a double offering, two speeches titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” The first is from 1959, a commencement address at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Dr. King delivered the second in 1968 in Washington, DC, at the National Cathedral (you can watch that speech here).

Dr. King’s speeches and writings have much to teach us. This selection alone presents a much fuller picture of Dr. King than many Americans may have, ensuring that anyone who once believed that Dr. King’s vision was limited to integration or dismantling the legal infrastructure of segregation will understand that for all the progress in these areas – laws dismantled and passed racism greatly diminished – Dr. King’s dreams are very far from fulfilled. They will understand that achieving the dream – and that honoring the legacy of Dr. King, as the vast majority of Americans would profess to do – means ending poverty at home, and not resting until we have helped rid the entire world of poverty. It means creating a world at peace and with a culture of nonviolence, and having our moral development catch up to our scientific and technological advances. And yes, certainly it means integration, a country where people of different races and ethnicities and religions live – and work, and go to school, and participate in the daily experiences of our lives – together, as brothers and sisters, a fundamental tenant of Dr. King’s dream. That vision, too, represents a future we have yet to build.

The words and vision Dr. King, as much as anyone and more than virtually anyone else, have the power to inspire us in how we ought to live and understand our lives. We share a common “destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” “[T]he time is always ripe to do what is right.” The foundation of resolving conflict peacefully is love. We should seek to achieve a world where “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” where we transform the “jangling discords of our nation into ”a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” (and sisterhood), and where “peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” And we should strive for the day when “the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Such an education and inspiration should begin early. No child in America should complete their education with the impression that Dr. King’s work is done because of the end of Jim Crow, because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Examining the totality of Dr. King’s vision compared to today’s realities – the re-segregation of schools, enduring segregation of our neighborhoods, the new wave of voting restrictions and the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act rollback, the persistence of structural racism, and in prison labor, even involuntary servitude, but far beyond such core issues of civil rights to economic inequality, questions of war and peace, and more – and you will confront many of the most pressing issues facing our country, and our world, today.

At the same time, every child should be exposed to the grandeur of Dr. King’s vision of peace and love, mutuality and justice for all. Every child should have the opportunity to be inspired.

And that is another reason that learning about Dr. King – and returning to his words and vision again and again – is so critical. He offers broader lessons of our own role in the struggle for justice. For, harkening back to a century before MLK, it is “for us the living…to be dedicated here to the unfinished work” that Dr. King – and so many who came before him, who struggled together with him, and who have come since – “so nobly advanced.”

Dr. King’s speeches and writings hold particular power, from highlighting a mix of achievement and progress still to be had, addressing many of today’s most significant societal ills, and offering an overarching vision of a justice society, all wrapped in a deeply moving and inspirational eloquence and  force. But other Americans – and human rights leaders of other lands – are, of course, also eminently worthy of study, including to learn about their – and our – struggles involving issues that even Dr. King neglected (notably, for instance, gender equality), and other pressing issues of our time.

Put in perhaps more specific terms, the Speak Truth to Power curriculum of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, or something like it, should be adopted by every school in this country. This human rights program, which has reached more than 5 million people and has lessons that span from elementary school through college, introduces students to rights through individual human rights defenders from around the world. Indeed, this could – should – be part of a reimagined education system that has as a core goal preparing our young people to be human rights defenders themselves, whether as a central part of their lives, as with Dr. King, or – for the vast majority of people – through principles and actions incorporated into the daily texture of their lives, such as at work and through community and political engagement.

Meanwhile, those of us who are done with our formal schooling would do well to undertake a similar exercise of learning for the sake of acting – in the books we read and the online content and media we access, in our lifelong task of educating ourselves and growing as people – and would even benefit from the Speak Truth to Power curriculum itself (which revolves around different human rights defenders, and is available by clicking on a defender).

This approach to education need not be limited to the United States. All countries have their crusaders for justice and universal rights. People everywhere can, should, learn about – learn the lessons of, be inspired by – such people in their own countries, traditions, peoples. And we in the United States should also study human rights defenders who hail from other lands. If we all teach – and learn from – the speech, from the many speeches, writings, actions of Dr. King and other human rights defenders – if we let their words and actions shape who we are and guide our own actions – then we will move far closer to a just country and a just world. We can help create that Great Revolution.

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