Happy Birthday, Dr. King

D came home from school last week singing various songs about Martin Luther King.  Very cute.  The school also showed his class a movie that apparently involved time travel and how the world would be different if Dr. King hadn’t lived.  In particular, D was quite concerned that if it weren’t for Dr. King, black kids and white kids couldn’t go to school together and he wouldn’t have hardly any friends!

I didn’t want to spoil D’s enthusiasm, but two things about that claim disturb me:

First, I’m wondering if educators show the same film in inner-city classrooms that are 100% minority.  As Jonathan Kozol points out, if you visit any school in America that is named after Dr.  King or Rosa Parks, the chances are that it will be just as segregated as any school before Brown vs. Board of Education.

Second, with all due respect to Dr. King, I think it does a disservice to the civil rights movement to suggest that it all hung on one man.  The  path might well have been different — and quite possibly more violent — but I find it hard to imagine that we’d still have legal segregation in the US even if Dr. King had never lived.

I’m guessing I may have an annual series of posts for as long as I continue blogging, quibbling about how the schools talk about Dr. King.  Last year’s edition is here.

7 Responses to “Happy Birthday, Dr. King”

  1. Phantom Scribbler Says:

    In LG’s class, they don’t seem to have talked about it *at all* this year. No movie, no songs, not even the pablum he got last year about making the world a better place. But, you know, Valentine’s Day is a months-of-anticipation HUGE frickin’ deal.
    We watched the “I have a dream” speech yesterday, and, yes, talked about the ways in which there still are white schools and black schools, and the black schools don’t have as many books and things as the white schools.

  2. merseydotes Says:

    When I was teaching Sunday School this week, I asked how many of my kindergarteners had school on Monday. Of course, none of them did, and I asked if they knew why. They knew it was Martin Luther King Day (one of them helpfully corrected, ‘It’s Martin Luther King JUNIOR Day’) and one little boy said, ‘He helped white people to learn to like black people.’ I cringed inside because that explanation seemed so crass and oversimplified, but then I realized that I would have no idea how to explain Dr. King to my three-year-old Petunia. I guess you’ve got to start somewhere and just keep improving the explanation and adding more details all the while.

  3. Christine Says:

    A while ago, I asked a relative of mine who taught in an NYC public elementary school what she did for black history month and women’s history month – just out of curiosity. She told me she can’t stand having to cover those topics and doesn’t unless a parent mentions it to her. Personally, I was disgusted at her remarks. It is unfortunate that marking special history months are necessary since most history excludes the contributions women and minorities have made in for America.

  4. Elizabeth Says:

    I found a website that has the lyrics to the songs that Daniel learned if any of you want to use them. He learned the first two.

  5. bj Says:

    I respect everyone’s right to quibble, and to point out how the reality doesn’t meet the rhetoric.
    But, I don’t see any other way to explain the topic to little one’s. My 6yo recently explained MLK day to my 3yo (when asked to, because he asked why it wasn’t a school day). Her description shares a lot of similarities with what you folks report (which is interesting, because it shows the steroptypic information the kids get). But, she linked it to our personal situation (we are an interracial family) and to herself. And, it reminded me of something. No matter how much we bemoan how far we still have to go in having equal relationships among the races, we’ve come an awfully long way.
    As a non-white, I cannot tell you how absolutely vital it is that the laws have changed. Think about it. Forty years ago, the owner of Woolworth’s could tell me that I could not sit at the counter at Woolworth’s, and the police would come and renew me. Now, I go anywhere I want, confident that my money will buy my way in. Sure, there are still a few places where money doesn’t do the trick (or where my money has less worth than others, whose skin is the right color). But, those places are few, and no arm of the state will enforce their desires. This change is a huge and palpable change in the daily lives of non-whites. Martin Luther King (Jr.) was instrumental in that change.
    Of course, he wasn’t the only one. In particular, I’ve always felt that non-violent change works when you find a partner on the other side, who is willing to give up the privelege; In america it was the white liberals, and the jews, who couldn’t forget the stars. I also believe the threat of violence, the black panthers, and Malcolm X and the Watts riots played a role (one that’s harder to celebrate).
    But, the key thing is that things are immeasureably better now, regardless of how far they are from the ideal.
    PS: I’m asian, not african-american, which means I can’t lay claim to this history. But, the restrictive covenant (blacked out with a very dark marker) on the home I own would have prevented me from owning it 60 years ago, too.

  6. bj Says:

    PS: Elizabeth, I followed your link to the teaching about MLK, and I do have a quibble of my own. I don’t like it when MLK & the day is celebrated as a general celebration of “we should all get along” or “love each other” or “ignore physical differences.” I think it’s important to note the history, and to note it with specific examples of how things used to be. Merseydotes says this when she recoiled a bit against the statement that MLK taught “white people to love black people.” The key thing I’d like to see taught is that people were treated differently because of their race, not just by individuals (which they still are), but by the law. Then, you can saw the laws have been changed, and MLK fought to make it so. That leads into saying how people feel hasn’t changed all the way yet, though it’s different than it was, and MLK also taught about that (which he did, unlike some others).

  7. jen Says:

    Last month I read “Rising from the Rails”, which was a book about Pullman porters and their contribution to the civil rights and union movements. It particularly focused on some of the porters who’d paved the way for MLK … and have been completely forgotten since.
    To me it’s all about the public’s love of The Star. In sports, in the media, even in politics, we respond strongly to individuals. We much prefer to view events as the results of individual struggles than in terms of group victory (or defeat). Perhaps we can just relate better? Or it makes better copy? Who knows.

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