Who Are We Waiting For?
Owning Dr. King’s Vision for Just Education
Every year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day greets us with commemorations and carefully-worded statements. Organizations host days of service. And people with power quote “I Have A Dream”, even as they counter civil rights. Mere weeks later, we see this ritual play out again for the start of Black History Month. We go through the motions, and then we move along.
These acknowledgments can feel meaningful at the moment—hopeful even. But we have not yet done the work necessary as a society to deliver much of Dr. King’s vision decades later. In fact, education has lost ground in the necessary march toward justice and true freedom.
So, how might we reflect and plan for action with greater focus? Truth is, we cannot only look back with criticality, but we must also find community and accountability to our shared values. Just before the Brown v. Board decision outlawed school segregation, Dr. King offered the following words:
“It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture…Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”
– “The Purpose of Education”, 1947
Later, he emphasized the importance of reeducation and unlearning to get to a more just world, saying:
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn… Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”
– “Where Do We Go From Here”, 1967
Which of these ideas do you see in our world in 2022? How do these words affect your heart, mind, and body?
These quotes might bring up a sense of disappointment, frustration, or even shame for you. Others might see hope in the way neighbors and colleagues have stepped up in their communities. The point is, each of us has different work, and there is likely more that we can all do.
Within education, justice and opportunity for all must be the lenses through which we make every choice. They must inform the texts we put in front of children as we teach them to love and excel at reading. They must shape how we show children the wonders that math and science can unlock about our world. They must inspire us to disrupt harmful patterns in how we distribute resources, support the adults in our buildings, engage families, create learning environments, and share leadership. Many folks already realize this, but we must continue to bring others along.
Thus, we ask you:
- What unique strengths can you bring to social change?
- How will you continue to teach for equity even when times are tough?
- How will you help all children see that they are worthy, capable of great things, and deserving of all our world can offer them?
- How will you model a commitment to shared leadership that centers those most affected by generations of harm and inaction?
- How will you hold the line and offer hopeful demands for what education must do for all children when a vocal minority seeks to walk back progress?
We cannot wait for someone else to come along. This is our duty. As Dr. King said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”