From ‘Tolerate’ to ‘Celebrate’ – Honoring the Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King in our School Communities
As our nation honors the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King this week, it may be hard to remember that he was a figure of great controversy. By leading a resistance movement that confronted violent reactions to desegregation orders in the south and institutional racism in the north, he stirred the pot, made waves, and pricked the conscience of the nation.
He led marches and promoted the peaceful employment of civil disobedience to achieve justice and to force the nation to live up to its creed of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ He stood up, he spoke out, he asked questions of himself and others. He confronted hypocrisy and injustice. He conquered his own fears. He left a legacy of a committed life.
As we commemorate Dr. King’s life and legacy, we are challenged in our schools to analyze what progress and growth we have made in our learning communities in terms of dealing with differences. Not just learning differences, but all kinds of differences: gender, race, religion, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socio-economic status and more. Differences that – when woven together – form the warp and weft of a rich tapestry, a vibrant democracy, a powerful economy, and a just society.
Thomas Jefferson, recognizing the critical role that education plays in ensuring that a democracy actually reflects and protects the vital interests of its people, wrote that a strong democracy depends on, “a virtuous and knowledgeable electorate.” Educators are challenged to be vigilant in examining how effectively we are handling the responsibility of ensuring a vibrant democracy that accepts, values, and celebrates the contributions of all of its diverse citizenry.
In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey offers a rubric that allows us to place ourselves in one of four different levels when we think about how we deal with differences:
Level 1 – TOLERATE: To endure or put up with someone’s differences.
Level 2 – ACCEPT: To consent to someone’s differences; to regard them as proper, suitable, or normal.
Level 3 – VALUE: To be open and see someone’s differences as worthwhile.
Level 4 – CELEBRATE: To deeply understand another’s point of view, and to explain that point of view as well as or better than he or she could.
Too often we arrive at the first landing – tolerate – and stop. We simply ‘put up with’ each other’s differences when we have a responsibility to keep climbing past acceptance, to levels where we value and celebrate one another.
Accepting and honoring racial and ethnic differences, as difficult as that has been in our nation’s history, may be quite easy compared to accepting and honoring differences that are driven by religious or cultural values and mores. As educators, we should nurture an environment where the bar is set high on how we think about and deal with differences. Our expectations for our students and ourselves need to be challenging, and our aspirations for how our communities deal with diversity – racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, etc. – should not only reflect but surpass those of our adult peer groups.
If we as educators allow ourselves to become complacent with only offering simple platitudes about diversity –for example, that differences are only “skin deep” – we will have failed to meet Jefferson’s challenge in regard to a knowledgeable virtuous electorate. If we only teach to the texts and the tests, if we keep the focus on academic achievement without this deeper discussion, we fail to consider the purpose of a good education.
If we do not actively pursue the 3rd and 4th rungs on Covey’s ladder in every category of diversity, we will have failed in our duty to create safe, sustaining, inclusive and vibrant learning environments for all our kids. We will have failed in our obligation to protect and embrace gay and lesbian students, for example, who remain at risk and vulnerable in too many of our nation’s schools.
This month when we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, we are given an opportunity to examine our own lives and work and ask ourselves what kinds of communities we are creating in the hallways and classrooms of our schools – and what the purpose is of a good education. As one of our trustees at Lawrence asks whenever we consider changes in programs, “to what end?”
What do we hope for?
We hope for our students to be able to separate fact from opinion; to be information literate; to be active participants in their world. We hope they will put their own values into context and consider the values of others. We hope they can empathize with individuals who embrace different belief systems, and take another’s point of view in a debate. We hope they will collaborate, cooperate, listen carefully, think critically, and speak with good purpose. We hope they will put aside their own wants and needs for the good of the community. We hope they can stand up to prevent aggression and bullying behavior.
We hope they will learn to speak out, stand up, and accept responsibility for themselves and their communities. Not just their school community, but their greater society, nation, and world.
On Sunday February 4, 1968, just weeks before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon to his flock at the Ebenezer Baptist Church that is referred to by historians as his “Drum Major for Justice” speech:
Every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. I don’t think about it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, “What is it I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning. If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long.
He went on to say that he hoped only to leave a committed life behind – one steeped in the basic Judeo-Christian values and principles he embraced in his life and work: charity for those less fortunate, love for his neighbor, and peace in the land.
And what will be our legacy? How will our students describe us from their vantage point somewhere in the future?
On this anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., I ask us to consider this one question….
What do we hope for?Lou Salza firstname.lastname@example.org