On this easy Sunday morning, I read a Tweet from Ira Socol, teeing up Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop” speech for students. I last saw this speech at the National Civil Rights Museum and MLK memorial in Memphis. It is not as well known as his “I Have a Dream”; it is longer and filled with the political and social detail of the cause, but it is here that we see that MLK knew his path would likely lead to his death. It is a speech filled with both lofty passion and gritty, dirty detail. It is a martyr’s speech.
Dave Ostroff joined the Twitter chat, also taking advantage of MLK day to tee up a discussion of values for students. What values do we find in the speech? How might we provoke this discourse?
Then Ira suggested we create space for students to ask, “What would you fight for? What should be disrupted? What negotiated?” Now we are at the heart of learning, of how every school in the country could best celebrate MLK Day, not with a basketball tournament or a day free from school, but wrestling with what he and his generation wrestled with.
When I was in college I had to ask myself these questions one day. We recognized that the murderous, evil system of apartheid in South Africa was propped up by the commercial and monetary pillars of large U.S.-based corporations; no less so than the large munitions and chemical companies that did business with the Nazis from 1935-1940. We recognized that our university investment funds owned stock in these companies, received benefits from the success of companies that supported apartheid.
In 1977, students at college campuses questioned our trustees on these investments. They did not listen. So we had to decide if it was worth it to embrace the lessons of civil disobedience taught by MLK and Mahatma Ghandi. We recognized a chance to do our duty. We had to decide if it was worth it to risk arrest, possible loss of scholarships, possible expulsion from the university. Some of use decided it was; at Stanford we were the first to be arrested, followed quickly at Berkeley and Columbia and others. It was a small sacrifice; we knew we would not be beaten; we knew we would not be killed. But we had to go through the deep introspection of personal decision. Some of my friends left before the police came; they were still my friends. Many stayed. It was a transformative learning experience for me. A year later, most major universities had divested their holdings of companies doing business in South Africa and the end of apartheid was near.
This is not an equation of our small sacrifice with the civil rights warriors of the 1960’s. It is a personal tale of the power of wrestling with the questions that Ira posed. What better possible way to celebrate a week of learning dedicated to the memory of MLK than to create fertile ground for students to encounter this discussion for themselves?