On Martin Luther King Jr. Day we celebrate the life of a Civil Rights hero who believed in ordinary people’s ability to do extraordinary things. It’s an important day to reflect on his legacy, but too often Martin Luther King Jr. Day is tokenized in schools. When we fail to engage students in meaningful conversations about Dr. King’s legacy and the Civil Rights Movement, we fail to help students understand their own place in the ongoing struggle for racial justice.
Last week I gave a talk at Lakota Middle School’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly, and I asked students to consider five lessons from Dr. King. I also asked students to share their own ideas about how to bring people together to fight for racial justice, both in the world and in their own middle school.
Here are the five lessons from Dr. King that I asked students to consider.
Lesson one: The importance of recognizing our collective humanity
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
Perhaps the most enduring lesson from Dr. King is that achieving justice and liberation for all people depends on recognizing our shared humanity and destiny. The impacts of segregation, of injustice, are not limited to the oppressed, but extend to everyone in our society.
A case study from a professor at Stanford provides a useful analogy. The professor was asked to come to speak at a high school where students were being incredibly competitive and in some cases, not taking good care of each other.
He asked the students and their families to think about a lit candle. What happens when you share flame with another candle? You create light for another and maintain your entire flame. What does it do for the room? It brings more light to the world.
When we share our flames with others and see our health and happiness tied with others’, we bring more health and happiness to everyone. When we hoard our resources, or try to protect what we have against others, we limit the amount of life and love in the world.
Lesson two: Understanding the different layers of racism and other forms of oppression
Sometimes we think about racism, sexism, and heterosexism only as blatantly egregious acts and language, but this narrow definition of oppression ignores the impact of systemic and structural oppression, as well as the impact of implicit bias and stereotypes.
In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
In his letter, Dr. King articulates a form of racism that is subtle, but just as egregious, as a blatantly racist statement. To understand racism, we have to unpack its different layers and manifestations: internalized racism, interpersonal racism, and systemic racism. (In this video, Jay Smooth helpfully outlines these different manifestations of racism.)
Dr. King understood well that unless we addressed the racism within ourselves, within our communities, and in the broader systems that govern everyday life, we would not achieve justice. That means addressing not only outright racism, but also the racialized outcomes of systems and the preference for order over justice.
Lesson three: The importance of evolving our ideas and strategies
Dr. King evolved his strategy throughout the Civil Rights Movement. He used strategies like organizing direct action (sit-ins) and civil disobedience, writing letters and giving speeches to those in positions of power, using the media to bring images of the Civil Rights Movement into people’s homes, and mobilizing young people. Before his assassination, Dr. King was evolving his strategy to not just focus on race and racism, but to show how interconnected racism and classism are. He was building a multi-racial movement of folks that would advocate for human rights, as opposed to just civil rights.
Like Dr. King, it’s important for us to use every tool at our disposal and to continue to evolve our strategies to advocate for racial justice as well. For example, I’ve used my position at the Raikes Foundation to push our staff and trustees to better understand and address structural racism embedded in the education system, and I’ve also traveled to Standing Rock and Ferguson with my family to participate in marches and protests. Progress takes all of us giving it everything we’ve got and using every available tool to create change.
Lesson four: Young people are powerful
Involving young people was a key part of Dr. King’s and other civil rights leaders’ strategy.
Young people knew how important this moment was and wanted to participate – they attended marches and protests and even boycotted school in certain places, to participate. And when people across the nation saw young people putting their lives and bodies on the line, it forever changed the way they saw the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. King knew that young people have incredible power to change hearts and minds, as well as to come up with new, more innovative ideas to bring about racial justice. Today we continue to see that power with young people starting efforts like Standing Rock, using their voices on social media, and starting nonprofits that bring new ideas into the world.
Lesson five: Movements are made up of everyday people
Oftentimes we hear about leaders like Dr. King and think of them as extraordinary people, capable of things greater than “average” people. But Dr. King defined leadership as everyday acts, intentional actions, and leading through love in all that we do. He believed in ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Today is a day to celebrate Dr. King, but he would want to celebrate all the incredible leaders who fought, and who are still fighting, for a more just world. From well-known figures, like Rosa Parks and Representative John Lewis, to student activist Clyde Kennard, legal trailblazer Dr. Pauli Murray, and the local leaders right in our own backyard, the movement for equality has innumerable examples of everyday people accomplishing incredible things.