By now most of us are back in full swing after the holiday break, navigating the COVID-19 terrain, settling back into our routine, and shifting our focus to the second half of our school year. Yet even with the break not long past, chances are that we have started the countdown to our next day(s) off. For many of us, that will be the third Monday of this month, this year falling on January 18, a holiday known in the U.S. as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This is a day for Americans to collectively observe the birth, life, and legacy of Dr. King. Many find it customary to celebrate with a day off from work, while others recognize it as “a day on, not a day off” by participating in a nationwide effort of service.
From my experience, MLK Day in the Christian school has subscribed more to the mindset of a day off rather than a day on, never really doing Dr. King’s legacy justice. Teachers block it off on calendars as a day to strategically plan around important assignments or assessments. At best, the days leading up to the holiday might include some superficial efforts at remembrance. Morning announcements are inundated with “fun facts” about Dr. King and his family. The special chapel honoring Dr. King stays on the surface, projects a cookie-cutter message of loving and serving others, and feels no different when compared to the structure of other chapels. Our curriculum and class instruction might sprinkle in brief historical anecdotes pertaining to Civil Rights. But rarely do we set apart time and attention for deep and concentrated reflection on the legacy of the man–a Christian man who was hated, mistreated, and ultimately killed for trying to unite a politically, socially, and economically divided nation under the banner of constitutional rights and biblical truths.
I feel that our schools often sterilize the life, legacy, and impact of Dr. King. For what reason, I don’t know. What I do know is that every year around this time, I find myself pondering the same questions:
- Why do we continue to project a false colorblind narrative when analyzing Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? We rarely mention Dr. King’s outspoken views on combating poverty or his belief that America “defaulted on its promissory note” to its citizens of color.
- Why do we hardly speak of or analyze his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” an epistle written to his Christian and Jewish brothers? There is much to glean from this letter in which he expresses his disappointment of the white church and the white moderate, outlines the four basic steps to a nonviolent campaign, calls out many in the church for being “more cautious than courageous” in their silence, and insists that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
- Why don’t we analyze his Nobel Peace Prize speech in which he expressed his belief that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality” and his undying faith and belief that we as a people will overcome?
- Moreover, why don’t we use this time to learn about the others who helped propel the Civil Rights Movement forward? Where is the recognition for Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Kathleen Cleaver, Malcolm X, Ralph Abernathy, or Medgar Evers? Why aren’t the names of Daisy Bates, Claudette Colvin, Diane Nash, Emmitt Till, the Freedom Riders, C.T Vivian, John Lewis, or Thurgood Marshall as commonly known?
These figures, though instrumental in history, suffer the tragedy of being overshadowed, scarcely mentioned, or never seen within our classrooms, bulletin boards, and morning announcements. We must do better by considering all that Dr. King stood for and to remember the names and courage of his lesser known comrades through the Civil Rights struggle. Their toil allowed us to accomplish much and gave us much to celebrate.
My hope and prayer is that the tough questions I have posed will encourage self-reflection in you and your school community. In order for Dr. King’s legacy to truly live on and continue to impact our world, we must be committed to accurately telling Dr. King’s story and honoring the contributions and accomplishments of our Christian brothers and sisters who fought for social justice and equality in the face of hate and discrimination.
Thank you Joel for this educational piece! In a changing former “white world” we need people like you to help all of us!
Marion Van Soelen