Martin Luther King Jr. was fearless in calling attention to the persistent disconnect between our nation’s highest ideals and the stark reality for Black Americans. His forceful voice chastised the powerful and championed the powerless.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Dr. King
Dr. King and the activists of the Civil Rights Movement inspired Americans to do more than dream of equal opportunity. Their righteous anger, unyielding voices, and moral authority became a demand – a demand that was impossible to ignore. Momentum for change grew with every sit-in, rally, and march. The movement gathered strength in spite of, and often because of, the intimidation and violent tactics that challenged it.
The movement was about equal rights in the voting place, on the job, in the school – in all places and all civic institutions. It was about being granted full citizenship regardless of gender, race, nationality, or cultural background.
“Somewhere I read that the greatness of America was the right to protest for rights.” – Dr. King
The achievements and aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement were not the work of one man. Yet, the celebration of Martin Luther King Day gives us the opportunity to appreciate the life of a great leader who was a “drum major for justice,” and to acknowledge that each of us has a place in the new Civil Rights Movement.
Now, there are some who wonder why we need a movement for justice and opportunity today. They become defensive and testy when they hear talk of the escalating wealth of the ultra-rich, the stubborn poverty in many urban centers and rural areas, the lack of classroom resources for students who live on the wrong side of town.
They don’t necessarily deny these problems; they either attribute them to the lack of individual effort, or they simply don’t think they are the defining issues of our time. They believe we are dissing American exceptionalism when we point out that although we’ve climbed many mountains, others remain in our path.
But I believe, as Dr. King did, that the true measure of one’s love of country is the willingness to look honestly at what we must do, roll up our sleeves, take a deep breath, and get to it.
It’s in that spirit that educators came together across the nation to support the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), envisioning it as a new frontier in the march toward social justice and equal opportunity. Education is a civil right.
On December 10, I was at the White House when President Obama signed the ESSA. He echoed Dr. King’s philosophy when he said, “There’s nothing more essential to living up to the ideals of this nation than making sure every child is able to achieve their God-given potential.”
But the most moving words that day may have come from Antonio Martin, an 8th-grader at Kenmore Middle School in Alexandria, Va. who wants to be an engineer someday.
Antonio had the privilege of introducing the president. Before he did, he talked a little about Kenmore. “I love science and math and my teachers have enriched my love of learning,” Antonio said. “I have the option of being in drama and orchestra. …Art is integrated into all subjects. In my world geography class, we integrate color to help emphasize important ideas. …The minds of the future are in school with me, and the future will blossom from our minds.”
I am so proud of Antonio and I’m thrilled that he and his classmates are getting the kind of rich experience that will prepare them well for whatever is ahead. Antonio, I’m sure, will become an engineer or whatever he chooses to be.
I want more of our nation’s students to have what Antonio has. But in America, your ZIP code often determines the quality of your education. An article in NEA Today, “The Rising Toll of Inequitable School Funding,” points out that the way we fund public schools does not “reflect the idea that a K-12 education should give all children an equal shot at being college and career ready.”
An Education Trust report found that our nation’s highest-poverty school districts receive $1,200 less per student on average than districts with the lowest poverty. And districts with the largest number of students of color receive about $2,000 less per student than districts with the fewest.
What are we telling these students? We are saying: We don’t believe they are the “minds of the future.” We don’t expect much of them. They are not precious enough to merit our investment.
We are telling them that, despite the sacrifices and achievements for which we celebrate Dr. King, they are not worthy of our best.
All our students are precious. Our top priority as educators must be doing whatever is necessary to ensure that regardless of where they live, they all have caring, committed teachers and a rich, challenging educational experience. You and I must be the activists in a new movement for public education. In Dr. King’s memory and for our nation’s future, we must demand the best for our students. They deserve it.
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” – Dr. King