Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (January 2014 #3)

Do we even know what Dr. King Accomplished?  …And how do we teach that?

I was the first of the children of my family to get an apartment.  Feeling like an adult, I wanted to host a family gathering – not just once, but as a ritual.  At the time, holidays were associated with family gatherings – and each holiday was “taken” as it was, by a different family.  Christmas Eve was rotated amongst my father’s siblings, Christmas was hosted by my mother. My mother’s siblings rotated hosting on Easter (and even Palm Sunday). On Thanksgiving, each family usually stayed with their own.  In hindsight, it was no surprise that no one in my family had claimed the holiday remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Truth be told, many in my family were excited to come to my tiny, Providence apartment on Manton Avenue – mostly because with each family event came a ton of food.  When they showed up on this day, however, there was a surprise – a theme of its own.  On these day’s, besides my vegetable chili, my family also found themselves in front of a television playing civil rights documentaries, listening to music with revolutionary lyrics and always pushed to add the make-shift chalk-talk on the kitchen wall asking a personal question about their beliefs and values about the holiday, it’s purpose and the man for whom it was meant to remember and celebrate.

It would be overly romantic of me to say these events demonstrated the most loving and just side of my white Lebanese and Italian family.  What it did accomplish was to get us talking… talking about and keeping alive the man, his ideas and to some extent, our own awareness.

As this day comes around each year, I miss being around my family – but I also miss the intentionality of remembering Dr. King.  In our work, I frequently see – and use – Dr. King’s quotes as a motivating force for courage and leadership, but such acts usually occur over a few moments, in the context of a larger goal, and usually alongside any other number of inspirational quotes.  Today when I awoke to the rash of texts and emails from my family and friends stating, “Happy Martin Luther King Day”, I wondered, “What are we celebrating… or even what are we remembering?”  The challenge to myself soon became a challenge for how we might choose to educate our youth about this great leader and change agent.

Then as if in direct response to my questioning, a colleague shared blogger Hamden Rice’s very powerful and personal journal answering this question of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did (“Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”  [http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/08/29/1011562/-Most-of-you-have-no-idea-what-Martin-Luther-King-actually-did]

Rice’s reflection – and that of Rice’s father, brings meaning to Dr. King’s life in a way no single quote could. I could not help but to think about how we traditionally teach – or “cover” Dr. King’s life in our schools.  I am reminded of the African American high school student who complained that she learned about Dr. King every year… at the same time of year and with the same curriculum each time.  If, as Rice put it, Dr. King’s work for which he died was to end the terror for African American’s living in the south – and when we consider that so many of our African American brothers and sisters and their children continue to live in an America that can be terrifying based on their race, how is it that we don’t have more to teach our students?  How is it that we “honor” the man for whom this holiday is named, but don’t take up his work every day in our schools that continue to reach least the very students for whom he “marched”?

How much more will it take for us to rethink how and why we teach about Dr. King?  Consider…


  • Continue to teach about Dr. King – and other social justice leaders – throughout the year, not only when the curriculum requires for it, but also when the current events of our times call for it.

  • Include the message and teaching service in any curriculum.  When engaged in service, connect the acts of our students to those of our historical leaders such as Dr. King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, etc.

  • Don’t limit lessons about our leaders to the rare acts of a few – get to know what is happening in your students’ communities to expand your list of leaders who represent students and their allies to include current and local leaders – including the students and families themselves.


To this last point, don’t just assume leadership is understood by example only.  Teach leadership explicitly.  Teach and reinforce the need for various leadership styles (i.e. Autocratic, Bureaucratic, Charismatic, Democratic or Participative, Laissez-Faire, People or Relations-Oriented, Servant, Situational, Task-Oriented, Transactional, Transformational), and when remembering Dr. King and others ask students to discuss his leadership style – and how it changed at any given time of his life.

What are you already doing?  Please share.

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