The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

It seems appropriate, as we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States, that today I focus on issues of access and opportunity.

It was almost 44 years ago. August 28, 1963, to be exact, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the infamous march on Washington. The March followed years of protests and violence across the south and was coordinated to bring national and international focus on the plight of Black men and women and others who were impacted by prejudice. As King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The March almost never happened. Earlier that year, President Kennedy introduced the Civil Rights bill to Congress that would provide Blacks and others “the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves.” But movement was slow in the years since Brown vs. Board of Education and Kennedy’s legislative attempt and people were becoming restless. When informed about the possible march, Kennedy tried to convince the coordinating groups not to do it. “We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol,” said Kennedy. “Some of these people are looking for an excuse to be against us; and I don’t want to give any of them a chance to say ‘Yes, I’m for the bill, but I am damned if I will vote for it at the point of a gun.” Kennedy wasn’t alone. Many supporters were also worried that a march would turn into a riot. J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI Director, attempted to preempt the March and had worked diligently to denigrate Dr. King. All efforts failed.

Public officials expected 100,000 people to show up to the March on Washington. On August 28, the day of the March, officials estimated the crowd in excess of 250,000. The District of Columbia essentially shut down. Two Washington Senators games were cancelled (they should have cancelled more; the Senators went 56-106 that year). Attendees were 80 percent Black, and included well-known figures Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Hesston (yes, the actor-former NRA-head Heston), Marian Anderson, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Josephine Baker.

Forty-four years later, what we most remember is King’s I Have a Dream speech, which I’ve posted below. The image of King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is embedded in our consciousness, as are his words. In his speech, Dr. King said that they had come to Washington to “cash a check” on the promissory note signed by framers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. “This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The immediate years following the March were difficult. Only two weeks later a bomb killed four young Black girls in a Birmingham church (Spike Lee brought this story to the screen in 1997’s “4 Little Girls”). President Kennedy was assassinated only three months later. In March of the following year there was “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama. One week after the Selma incident, President Johnson said this:

A century has passed–more than 100 years–since equality was promised, and yet the Negro is not equal. A century has passed since the day of promise, and the promise is unkept. The time of justice has now come, and I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come, and when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American. For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated? How many white families have lived in stark poverty? How many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we wasted energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror? (President Johnson, March 15, 1965).

President Johnson made civil rights and education a priority. In 1964, he continued Kennedy’s work and convinced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. One year later the Higher Education Act was enacted. But the struggle continued. Dr. King was assassinated in April of 1968, followed only two months later by the slaying of Senator Robert Kennedy.

One can argue how far we have come. Did the March on Washington and King’s I Have a Dream speech have any impact on race and opportunity in America?

Forty-four years later we now have a day to celebrate this man who, although not perfect, had the leadership ability, direction, and faith to lead a movement and show us how we can make a difference. We surely haven’t solved inequity in this country or in any other country. There are still large gaps in educational and societal opportunity. But we’ve moved closer; we’ve done better. Perhaps we still have a march of our own to focus on. We’ve done well in opening the doors of education and opportunity, but we need to do better. We need to teach better so students can “learn” better. We need to show youth of all races, ethnic groups, and income levels that true opportunity exists so they can aspire toward a better future. Through that we all benefit, as does the world. We need to work to ensure that students have a legitimate chance of success in our society; in our world. Let freedom ring.

We have much work to do, but on Monday, January 15, we can take the time to look at the life of an individual who chose to make a difference. Perhaps King said it best and simplest:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ “

Martin Luther King, Jr. led by example, and as we continue to work toward better educational opportunities for all citizens of this world, we should take the time to remember his legacy on Monday.

I HAVE A DREAM

Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963, Washington, DC

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning. Those who hoped that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “for whites only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today my friends – so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father’s died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring!”

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi – from every mountainside.

Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring – when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children – black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics – will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

In this week’s news, we feature a new study by the DC-based Alliance for Excellent Education, which finds that over $1.4 billion is spent at US two-year institutions for developmental (remedial) education. The issue of remediation continues to become an increasing challenge for educational institutions in the US and Canada. Critics of remedial programming suggest that if high schools did their job better, this wouldn’t be an issue. That’s a hard point to argue. Certainly, if our middle and high schools better prepared students for higher education, we would rely less on remedial programs later in the education process. However, education reform doesn’t happen overnight and, given our track record over the past 20 years, it hardly occurs at all.

So we’re stuck with this remedial problem for the foreseeable future. A few years ago, the State of New York decided that remedial programs didn’t belong in four-year institutions, so they pushed them down to the community college level. Other states followed New York’s lead. In some ways, this approach makes sense: community colleges are less expensive on a per capita/per course basis than universities. Beyond the fiscal horizon, we do not know if the quality of remedial education is as good as it was at the university level. To my knowledge, that research question has not been addressed (and if anyone contests, please bring it to my attention).

This remedial issue is a bigger problem than one might perceive. With No Child Left Behind and the increasing focus on accountability by the Bush Administration and policymakers across the country, it is significant that high school graduates are requiring extensive remediation at the postsecondary level. They are graduating with a diploma, but unprepared—at some level—for college-level work.

The Alliance report is correct in suggesting that this is a huge pink elephant in the education big-top, but let’s be clear: there is no silver bullet here. There is no simple policy to rectify the situation. If students are unprepared for postsecondary work but aspire to study at that level, remediation is their only avenue. Forcing down remediation to the community college level, as in New York, was meant as an effort to do so, but there is little or no evidence to suggest that this policy, except on a fiscal level, has been successful.

At one level I would support a federal program that rewards schools and institutions for reducing remedial/developmental needs for underrepresented groups at the postsecondary level. The challenge, of course, is that our vision of “K-16” education is mostly a cliché; accountability from secondary to postsecondary education is pathetic. No one owns “the problem,” and the system isn’t built to share the responsibility or blame. Ultimately, we need to continue the conversations about K-16 or K-20 partnerships, but we need to up the ante. At some level, governments need to make it known that this is serious stuff. K-12 won’t like that, nor will higher education. But it may be the only carrot/cattle prod to which those two entities will respond.

Like every other conversation, I could easily segue into the need for a national unit-record database, so we could truly see where these issues hit home. But that will have to wait for another week.

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