Change Doesn’t Happen Overnight- Reflections on MLK Day

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

                        -Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Nelson Mandela died, I played a tribute video for him in my classes. One of my students turned to me with a shocked face and said, “Ms. how do you expect us to know who Nelson Mandela is? Everyone we learn about in history is white. The only black people we learn about is MLK and Rosa Parks, and now sometimes Obama. But all the other black people are slaves in our book.”

When that student said she didn’t care about white men on horseback killing each other, but wanted to learn about herself and what her people went through and have done, it really touched my heart. I asked her what she knew about Martin Luther King Jr, who I was especially interested in knowing her knowledge of. She said she knew he was black and that he had made speeches about our rights–the most basic of knowledge of a deeply involved and engaging man.

In a speech, Martin Luther King Jr said the following on education:

“…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 a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the ligitimate goals of his life.

“Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.

“At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. 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.

We live in a time that has been broken by attempts at quick fixes, commitments to social media over social enterprises and social movements, and a history that has become merely that–just history.

What King understood almost better than anyone else was that deeply engrained societal issues took time and hands-on effort to solve. He had people who joined his movement knowing that they may not live to see the fruits of their labor, but one day their children or their grandchildren would. We care mainly for immediate gratification. I see it each day when we switch from one type of education reform to the next, not waiting to see if it can solve a problem that was started decades ago in the classroom.

Nothing is just the way it is because it happened so today. Modern day institutionalized and systematic inequalities and issues stem from deeply rooted historical events and decisions. When I think about King’s quote about the arc of the moral universe being long but it bending toward justice, I think about my own work in the classroom and my attempt to help save my students from being invaded by “half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” It’s a job that takes daily work and daily reminding to even have the smallest of victories now, that I hope will pay off in bigger victories later when they begin to question the very fabrics and concretes of the life they’ve been told has to be theirs.

I hear you still Dr. King, and I will do my best to march that long road with you, even still today.

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