The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands as perhaps the greatest champion of civil rights in American history.
King fought for justice, equality and freedom for all. His famous speeches and marches continue to dominate conversations year in and year out each January when his birth is observed and each February during Black History Month commemorations.
Perhaps among the unsung missions of King was his desire to see African Americans receive a good education.
King himself was educated. The icon earned degrees from Morehouse College, Crozer Seminary and Boston University. He completed Booker Washington High School at age 15, college at 19, and the Seminary at 22.
By age 26, King had earned a doctorate.
The civil rights leader’s history is regularly celebrated at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta where, in an interview with The Washington Informer, the center’s senior public programs and education manager, Allen Lee, noted King’s role in seeking educational equality for African Americans and other minorities:
Washington Informer: What was King’s message about education?
Lee: Martin Luther King Jr. was raised in a family that held a high value on education, and he was the third generation to attend Morehouse College. At Morehouse, King was surrounded by mentors that saw education as an essential component in developing moral character. You can see the impact of this Liberal Arts education throughout King’s writing and speeches.
From his writings for the Morehouse College Maroon Tiger newspaper:
“[A] great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. … The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.
This true education, it should be noted, was larger than the question of segregation or integration. Laws offered protection against and redress for injustice, while education can address immoral motivation for an unjust act. I realize that the law cannot make an employer love me or have compassion for me, education and religion will have to do that.”
Conversely, King warned that the lack of integration in communities and education has the potential of dire effects.
“… frustration which grows out of poor educational preparation which paves the way for riots and violence as a last resort to lash out against the system which first deprived them and then exploits them,” King said during a speech to the Georgia Teachers and Education Association on Friday April 31, 1967.
“I submit to you tonight that there is no more dangerous development in our nation than the constant building up of predominantly Negro central cities ringed by white suburbs. This will do nothing but invite social disaster,” King said at The Other America Grosse Pointe High School on March 14, 1968.
Perhaps this is why King titled the first address, “Revolution in the Classroom” and warns in the second, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” According to King, education offered concrete and meaningful redress through improving the moral fabric of our society, and was a guard against the factors that could potentially tear our country apart.
WI: What was his impact on education in the Black community?
Lee: There is no easy answer to this question. I can only speak from personal experience. I was raised in the rural South, attending public school, and memorizing King’s “I Have A Dream” speech for Order of the Eastern Star Oratory Contests.
While others studied Shakespeare to learn about delivery, meter, and rhetorical devices, I studied King. Beyond this, he was an example of what it meant to be well read, articulate and persuasive. For many like me, King stands as an archetype of what it means to be an educated man.
Now as a teacher, for over 15 years in both private and public schools, I can also share from personal experience that King’s effect on education in the black community has other sides.
For some, King represents an unattainable example. His life is deified to such an extent, that some cannot relate. Unfortunately, it was much more common for me to encounter a student that was intimidated more so than motivated by the King’s iconic image and tragic end.
I always tried to personalize figures in history, King included. I would share his less-than-perfect elementary school report cards, and while he attended college at 15, he self-reports to have only read at an eighth-grade level.
Slowly, I am seeing a more textured and relatable version of King emerge in the popular culture. I believe that as we are more nuanced about King’s struggles and successes, we can better capitalize on King’s amazing example of education as a tool for social justice.
WI: What are civil rights leaders doing now to advocate education equality in the spirit of King?
Lee: In the nearly 50 years since King’s assassination, even as public schools have largely become re-segregated due to economic and housing patterns, many of his contemporaries have continued the struggle for educational equality.
Two notable figures are Marian Wright Edelman and Robert Moses. Ms. Edelman founded the Children’s Defense Fund and its associated Freedom Schools, which focus on literacy and year-round educational enrichment in distressed communities.
Mr. Moses created the Algebra Project, a community organizing and educational reform framework that speaks directly to King’s assertion that the revolution must be in the classroom.
Together both Ms. Edelman and Mr. Moses continue King’s legacy by actively supporting educational equality that combines knowledge, character and action.