Wrestling With the Lessons of MLK

Wrestling With the Lessons of MLK

imgresOn 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.

imagesWhen 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?

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  1. Dave Ostroff January 19, 2014 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    I love the ways that you encourage me to think more deeply, Grant, by the questions you pose. I appreciate you for engaging and sharing both via Twitter and here at your blog with a post that shares a powerful part of your life story that I didn’t know!

    What resonates for me in our discussion is aligning our broad, strategic goal of developing a student-centered approach with our plans to consider MLK’s legacy this week. My wheels are turning around 1) How might we move away from lessons that center on adults offering ‘homage’ to MLK and, in effect, telling students “this is what/why you should know”? and 2) HMW encourage a real discourse among students that has relevance and meaning for them? Does that conversation begin with questions like “What should students fight for? What should be disrupted? / What should be negotiated? What is worth jail, beating, or worse?” I’m curious about what questions students would post-up if we started with those as models/scaffolding…

    … since our conversation began, I’ve consulted Jason Yaffe, a long-time colleague who teaches a history elective on the 1960s at Greenhill School in Dallas (lurking in Twitter @yaffejason). Jason recommends MLK’s 1955 speech at the Holt Street Baptist Church as an entry point for students to create meaning markers from a discussion about MLK. It’s less than 10 minutes long and offers clear connections to Rosa Parks’ story, to US Constitution, and to King’s views on essence of civil rights movement’s place within our American democracy. I like this version (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TmoFoG5P-U) because it has the text of the speech embedded as the visual.

    I’m hoping the conversation continues with folks sharing ideas about their plans for next week… and more folks sharing “What if ?’s” that encourage us to think creatively about designing new approaches to engage students around MLK Day.

    • glichtman January 19, 2014 at 9:42 pm - Reply

      I had not seen this speech in the past; another powerful one. But an interesting contrast to “Mountaintop”; much more of a religious argument and ties between the American moral/religious foundation and the rights embedded in the Constitution. So great original source!

      I do think what could be (r)evolutionary for a school is to get away from homage and into these really thorny questions that Ira started to pose. I would extend it to “what would make you go over the top of the trench”? Tolstoy’s great question in the appendix (as I recall) of War and Peace: what was it that got a million Frenchmen to walk across a continent to die in Russia? What were the questions that we/our brothers had to face when deciding for the draft or Canada?

      I shared my (much longer) story about the apartheid arrests to my own Falconer students and they really loved hearing it; students in strong indy schools are not used to thinking of their teachers having been arrested, and much less being proud of it.

  2. […] 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 mem…  […]

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