The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Boston

Boston embraces his enduring presence

by Paula Paris

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born January 15, 1929, is revered for his faith-based non-violent efforts to combat and dismantle racial segregation and discrimination in this country.  Embedded in his quest for equity was a deeply held belief in the power of education for achieving social justice. 

What would he think about the current state of our schools?  Would he be dismayed at seeing his dream still deferred? How would he respond to current attempts to reverse the equity gains achieved as a result of his efforts? What solutions would he challenge us to pursue? 

The struggle for equal educational opportunity has been at the core of the civil rights movement from its beginnings.  Dr. King’s commitment to education as a human right surfaced in a 1947 essay he wrote as a Morehouse College student titled The Purpose of Education.  He challenged what he characterized as the popular view “that education should equip [students] with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses.”

This view of inequitable access to education that restricts it to an elite of personal or community wealth offers an explanation of why the lesser-educated remain at the lower rungs of the workforce and social ladder where they are perpetually vulnerable to exploitation.

In that same essay, King reframes the purpose of education as twofold: utilitarian, “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically;”  and moral, to build character.  “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.   Accepting the John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers on March 14,  King described education as “a battleground in the freedom struggle.” “Education is one of the vital tools … in order to advance,” he said. “And yet it has been denied … by devices of segregation and manipulations with quality.”

It was during this period that educational opportunity moved front and center on the national stage.  A decade earlier, in  Brown v. Board of Education,  the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren had overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” schools for Black people and White people, and set a legal precedent for both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  “Separate facilities are inherently unequal; and to segregate students on the basis of race denies them equal protection under the law,”  read the unanimous decision.  In 1961 Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes became the first African Americans to enroll in Georgia State College amid riotous protests. In the course of their three-year court battle they were rejected eight times because there was ‘no room’ for them in the school’s dormitories.  

Also in 1965, addressing a joint session of the Massachusetts Legislature, King declared that “the Brown decision brought our nation a long, long way towards the realization of a great and noble dream.”   The following day he led a peaceful crowd estimated at five thousand on a March on Boston, from Carter Playground in Roxbury to a rally on  Boston Common demanding better housing and employment and an end to racial discrimination. As we know too well, despite its history as “The Cradle of Liberty” Boston harbored deeply rooted patterns of discrimination and segregation in housing, employment, and in the public schools.  A few months later, the Kiernan Report, Because it is Right Educationally, declared racial imbalance within schools to be detrimental to the well-being of all children. That same year  Massachusetts passed the Racial Imbalance Act calling for the Massachusetts State Board of Education to require desegregation plans from local school committees and to withhold funds if necessary. The Boston School Committee resisted the law, taking its case all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial  Court, which ruled against the Committee.

On June 21, 1974, in the United States  District Court of Massachusetts, Judge W. Arthur Garrity handed down the landmark ruling in the case of Tallulah Morgan vs. James Hennigan, ordering the Boston School Committee to eliminate the de facto segregated school system it had long maintained. Thus began the era of “forced bussing”  with its violence and controversy. Bussing as a solution for desegregation was officially halted by the Boston School Committee in 1999; but solutions to the persistent inequities of our education system still elude us.

On Monday, January 16, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was celebrated with tributes in song and oratory and service projects in communities across the city, state and nation. Last Friday in Boston, a public art monument to Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King, The Embrace, was unveiled on  Boston Common at the same spot where the 1965 march ended.

The inequities and injustices he fought against still divide us and incite hatred and violence.

It’s hard not to be discouraged when long-festering problems resist solution.  Dr. King was not immune to discouragement, but he offered an antidote to capitulation:  “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair…even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow.  I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream.”

Optimism fueled by urgency to keep the issues in the forefront, with the persistence to wrest sustainable change–that is how we can continue to build the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He continues to remind us, inspire us, and challenge us to keep equity at the center of our work in education and every walk of life.

Paula Paris is deputy director of JFYNetWorks.

Other posts authored by Paula can be found here.

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