Thankful for A Living Past and a Future Hope

…Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark past has taught us

Sing a song, full of the hope that the present has brought us

Facing the rising sun, of a new day begun

Let us march on ‘til victory is won.

…. From, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, 1900 [The Black National Anthem]

 [Beautifully sung here by the group Acappella –]

As a child, I learned to stand up for the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner”, but as a black child, I also learned to remain standing for the singing of the song that always followed it at any important gathering in our community: “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”  Whenever I hear it, it reminds me how important the past is to the future.

I’ve spent a good portion of the Thanksgiving holiday looking backward and forward. I’ve split my time between reading the last book written by Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr, Where Do We Go From Here and preparing to receive final projects from my freshmen composition students who’ve been studying his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and doing historical analysis of the Mississippi Delta over the past 50 years.

After watching the documentary, “The Children’s March” about the events in Birmingham in 1963, my students shared their discoveries on our class website. They were especially impressed by the role that young people played on the front lines of the civil rights campaigns.

A.K, “I found most interesting about the documentary was that the children were brave, and courageous to fight  for what they believed.  And the youngest child was four years old in jail!   No matter what the police did to them it, did not break them to give up for equal rights in Birmingham, AL.  I did not know that the Children’s march jumpstarted other marches in the civil rights movements.  I always thought the state of Mississippi had the most racist and violent towns, not in towns in Alabama. “

S.K., “The thing that intrigued me was how impervious they were to the blatant discrimination. These were children, need I mind you, who stood against dogs, water-hoses, and etc. My questions to my fellow classmates are, ‘Why is this the first time that we have been made aware of the fact that these were children? Do you think that the truth has been unmentioned or brushed aside for a reason?’ ”

Their discussions have been vibrant and genuine, and as a teacher of composition and rhetoric, it is exactly what I want to see my students doing with their thinking and language skills.  Several students noted Dr. King’s use of empathy as a powerful persuasive technique. He frequently used vivid images and specific details to help his audience understand what it was like for Black people to have lived under segregation for almost 100 years since the legal end of slavery, and why the need to end it was so urgent.

 “It is impossible for white Americans to grasp the depths and dimensions of the Negro’s dilemma without understanding what it means to be a Negro in America” (Where Do We Go From Here, Kindle location 1330).

As my students worked together on their analysis of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of them, a thoroughly Southern young white man, looked at me incredulously and asked, “Why were they so afraid of integration? What was the big deal?”  On one hand, it made me smile that he looked at the segregationist attitudes of the older generation as one might some quaint antique curio. At the same time, it concerns me that he and others think those attitudes, philosophies, and their very real consequences are completely gone from our society.

Unlike many others, Dr. King recognized that racism in America was not just the twisted thinking of a misguided or evil fringe group. As King documents in his book, and as any true student of American history knows, racism was developed and perpetuated over generations with the resources and collaboration of the most powerful institutions and leaders of this nation.

Generally we think of white supremacist views as having their origins with the unlettered, underprivileged, poorer-class whites. But the social obstetricians who presided at the birth of racist views in our country were from the aristocracy: rich merchants, influential clergymen, men of medical science, historians, and political scientists from some of the leading universities of the nation. (Where Do We Go From Here, Kindle Location 1211)

Education is not just the civil rights issue of this generation; it has been at the heart of the struggle for equal rights in this country since the Emancipation. King understood the perverse connection between racism and poverty in America. I imagine many  modern educators and reformers sold on the so-called “culture of poverty” mythology would be stung by King’s precise 1967 analysis:

The schools have been the historic routes of social mobility. But, when Negroes and others of the underclass now ask that schools play the same function for them, many within and outside the school system answer that the schools cannot do the job. They would impose on the family the whole task of preparing and leading youngsters into educational advance….Whatever pathology may exist in Negro families is far exceeded by this social pathology in the school system that refuses to accept a responsibility that no one else can bear and then scapegoats Negro families for failing to do the job. (Where Do We Go From Here, Kindle location 2800).

In 1967, Dr. King put forward a vision for American education that is remarkably similar to the ones put forward by teacher leaders (myself included) in 2011 [Teaching 2030:What We Must Do For Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future].  For example, he supported the proposal of sociologist Max Wolff for the development of “educational parks,” which would bring together “a multiplicity of teaching specialists and superb facilities” rather than continuing to “balkanize America into white and black schools and communities” (Where Do We Go From Here, Kindle location 2839). The federal government, he urged, should “move from supporting the fringes of education to supporting the basics—the teachers and the facilities with which they work.”  Today, many argue that the Federal government is overreaching its role in public education. I contend, however, like Dr. King, that our national leaders have not done nearly enough;  they have left too much unfinished, underfunded work, too many under-enforced civil rights laws, and too many unfulfilled promises.

It’s sobering and encouraging to watch as my students, for whom the events of 1963 are distant and new, realize what it meant to live through the tremendous changes that have shaped our nation. Meanwhile, Dr. King’s prophetic words remind me that many of the problems we now face are not new, and had we been paying attention, not unexpected. This is one reason history matters so much; otherwise, we’ll think the political and educational reform battles of today started with us, or blame individuals when the roots and causes go systemically deeper—as do the solutions.

  • JasonParker

    Letter from Birmingham Jail is…

    In my opinion, one of the best letters ever written by anyone, anywhere.

    I re-read the letter last night, actually. I’m working my way through an anthology of political speeches, written materials, poetry and prose that has impacted American history, affected the lives of Americans, and changed the political conversation for the better.

    I am so appreciative, Renee, that you’ve summarized Dr. King’s views on education, here. After re-reading MLK’s letter, and re-reading the famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington (also in 1963), I found myself deep in thought about how education and the public school system was central to the civil rights movement, and what Dr. King might say today, were he not assassinated and taken from this world far, far too early.

    Thank you for sharing this post. It would appear that I now have another book to add to my reading list. 🙂

  • Cathleen Lin


    Your post is a vivid reminder of the importance of learning from the past in order to live more wisely in the present. So often in teaching, I embrace new knowledge and skills without having the chance to reflect and juxtapose the new learning within the context of historical transformations in education.

  • SusanGraham

    Getting what you pay for–

    As a country we have always prided ourselves that we live in the Land of Opportunity and yet the fact is that we have  lower socio-economic mobility than much of the world. Here’s an interesting consideration about US results in PISA scores and those of our “competitor nations”  from Fareed Zakaria’s column in the Washington Post this morning :

    “Almost all the research suggests that how much you spend on schools does not predict your performance. The United States spends a lot; many Asian countries spend much less. However, the United States has an unusually large gap between its best and worst students. And it is almost unique in that it devotes less money, attention and energy on its most disadvantaged students. Most countries, certainly most high-performing countries, devote greater resources and attention to poor children. Because education in the United States is funded by local property taxes, the opposite dynamic is at work, which reinforces and exacerbates problems of mobility.”

    The American spirit of independence and American sense of community responsibility creates tension that can either cause us to sing or tear us apart. We must be very intentional about that fine line. Awareness matters and we must tell the story of people and not just policy to accomplish that balance.