Real Talk | MLK, education and unintended consequences

Real Talk | MLK, education and unintended consequences

Martin Luther King's birthday is unique among U.S. holidays. It's the only federal holiday that commemorates the life and contributions of a private citizen and an African American. Moreover, it is as much a commemoration of the movement as it is of the man.

What makes the King holiday most distinctive is how, rather than who or what, we celebrate. Much of the commemoration of the Rev. Dr. King's birthday concerns participation in a day of service. The MLK commemoration has also evolved into a moment of reflection, a time to assess "the state of the dream."

Since 2004, United for a Fair Economy has published an annual report assessing persistent racial disparities in wealth, quality of life and struggles for justice. The report is aptly titled "The State of the Dream."

In his last years, King revised his "dream" from the domestic concept of civil rights to the international theory of human rights. By 1967, he had become a drum major against "the triplets of evil" — racism, militarism and economic exploitation. In "Where do we go from Here?," King offers the most complete articulation of his revised dream.

His new vision was constructed on what he called black power's "broad and positive meaning." King aimed to transform U.S. public education, among other institutions. His experience during a teacher-parent conference convinced him to rethink the educational problems faced by black youths. King recounts discovering a dominant narrative of disparagement in his 12-year-old daughter's history textbook. This critical incident inspired him to rethink his approach to education.

His assessment of his daughter's history textbook moved him to place greater emphasis on ending "cultural homicide." Dr. King traced "cultural homicide" to teacher's tendency to teach African American children "a false sense of inferiority" and white children "a false sense of superiority."

Therefore, a significant aspect of Dr. King's new mission was to shatter "the manacles of self-abnegation." To do this, he argued, blacks must accept that they have "a noble history" and rather than be ashamed of their ancestors' enslavement, they should be ashamed of the people who enslaved them. Dr. King proclaimed, blacks "must massively assert our dignity and worth" and "stand up and say ... I'm black and beautiful."

The contradiction for Dr. King was that school "desegregation" was brutally implemented by the old regime. In the wake of Brown, black principals were demoted or rendered powerless, and black teachers were disproportionately terminated.

In Alabama and Virginia, the number of black principals was reduced from 210 to 57 and from 170 to 16, respectively. Overall, 38,000 black teachers in 21 southern and border states had their jobs terminated.

The closing of schools in black neighborhoods and the decline of black teachers has continued apace into the 21st century. As a consequence of school closings, the Albert Shanker Institute found that black teachers were disproportionately laid off or quit. Between 2001 and 2012, Chicago's black teaching corps plunged by nearly 40 percent, New Orleans' number by 62 percent. Overall, between 2001 and 2012, 26,000 black teachers disappeared from large metropolitan school districts. Additionally, numerous black coaches, nurses, school counselors and principals lost their jobs.

The humane treatment of black children is a casuality of the removal of black educational professionals. Adam Wright, a University of Santa Barbara researcher, found white teachers considered black students disciplinary problems far more often than did black teachers.

According to the scholars from the London School of Economics, white teachers graded black and Latinx students more harshly than they graded white students.

Indeed, racial discrimination in grading accounted for a 22 percent achievement gap between darker and white students. Researchers from Johns Hopkins discovered that black teachers were far more likely than white teachers to have high expectations for black students, especially boys.

These are the unintended consequences of the way school desegregation was implemented. It perpetuates what Dr. King called "cultural homicide." Unfortunately, his term mistakenly conveys the idea that he saw miseducation and self-hate as largely self-inflicted. However, Dr. King viewed this from the "flip side." He believed only blacks could free their own minds.

To affirm African American dignity, Dr. King argued that blacks "had to discover how to organize our strength into economic and political power." By 1967, he had concluded that "the major crisis" was between "immoral power and powerless morality." Thus, he joined black power advocates in arguing that African Americans needed power. Blacks needed power to free themselves from "the authoritarian and sometimes whimsical decisions of the white power structure" and to regain "the right to make decisions concerning (his) life and destiny."

Transforming education was central to Dr. King's new dream. The process of abolishing "cultural homicide" requires a total transformation of U.S. public education. It demands the infusion of African American history and culture into the school curriculum and necessitates adoption of culturally relevant teaching strategies. However, as Gloria Ladson-Billings points out, none of this works unless the school staff resemble the student body.

As we contemplate "the state of the dream" in 2019, let's do so through the lens of "Where do we go from Here?" Let's use Dr. King's ideas to stimulate a movement to transform public education.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is

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