Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King.

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Randy Fritz writes: A missive from my frustrations this morning that I won’t be teaching until Wednesday (still on an 8-block schedule):

As I sit here today, not teaching because of the celebration of Martin Luther King day, I think back on that tumultuous time in American history—the decade of my teens.  It was so long ago but it seems so recent.

This is a holiday, that is, time off from our work-a-day lives (at least for some of us).  How odd to celebrate the life and ideas of a man who worked tirelessly for equality by sitting around and not working.

There was quite a bit of controversy over creating the holiday.  An online article in yesterday’s Salon.com highlights some of it.  Support for the holiday became a test of one’s racial bona fides:  oppose it and you faced (probably accurate) accusations of racism; support it and you faced a backlash from some white voters.

In my humble opinion, both were wrong.  King himself would hate the idea of a “day off” as a way of celebrating his life and ideas.

Politicians, confronted with a potential loss of popularity, will try to do something about it, and will inevitably do the least they can to get past it:  the least painful; the least time-consuming and divisive.  Voting for a King holiday was a way to do that.  (Voting against a king holiday sent a different but definite message.)

“Well, we took care of that,” a pol might say.  He or she was confronted with a situation and “fixed it” with a vote.  But it was a cheesy way out, to say the least.

How about, instead, doing something different, life-affirming, and even positive, as well as in the spirit of the man and his mission.  How about, instead of sitting here at home today, we had a day of school and devoted that one day to lessons and discussions of the history of his non-violent movement, the idea of a “color-blind society” where we all are “judged not by the color of our skin but the content of our character” (God I love that line) and all the trappings of that brilliant idea?

The science department could talk about the genetics of race, English teachers could analyze King’s (and others’) speeches and writings, history teachers could emphasize . . . what?  I can’t think  of anything (that’s a joke).

We are never going to get past our racial problems if we don’t talk about them.  The question of race was left undone by our ancestors who ended Reconstruction way too early, which is one reason why we are still dealing with it today.  Another is that we take opportunities like this and throw them away.  Exactly how many kids in this small town (or a city, for that matter) will even think about the reason for this holiday, much less do anything positive about it?

And yes, I can and do have a unit on the civil rights movement and the zig-zaggy march toward racial equality (as well as punctuating many other lessons with the ideas, problems, and promises of a society that should embrace diversity).  A school-wide day, though (maybe even suggested or mandated by the state), would be a much more immersive (obviously) and instructionally relevant way to broach this subject.  (Yes, I know:  another “un-funded mandate.”  We don’t need another for sure, but this one, essentially, is cost-free.)

Here’s my take-away:  our diversity is one of our greatest strengths.  It is a part of American culture we are still, for most, seeing as a negative.  We need to do all we can to raise a generation that is truly color blind.  Our young ones aren’t going to learn this through osmosis.  We need to make an effort.

Randy,

A few years back our board of education was noodling around with our district calendar and floated the idea of getting a waiver from the ISBE on closing schools on the Federal holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday.

It would have strengthened the board’s position (It might even have been a requirement. But I forget now.) to have the union’s agreement. As President of our local, I refused. And encouraged our teachers to express their views to the board by email. Nearly all objected to the waiver even being requested.

None of us objected to the need to teach what you suggest.

The decision to make King’s birthday a national holiday was not a top-down, politician’s imposition. It was the result of a movement from below, leading to the holiday being declared in 1986.

In fact, Arizona refused to go along with the federal government. It was widely and accurately considered an act of racism.

Public revulsion to Arizona’s refusal to honor doctor King rightly led to a boycott of the state and the NFL moving the Super Bowl from Arizona to the Rose Bowl in 1992. That was followed by a state-wide vote resulting in Arizona joining the rest of the country.

On what other Federal holidays do our schools not close? 

Do our schools stay open on President’s Day? Or Columbus Day? Perhaps a few. But not many.

It is not a lost school day. Those days are just added to the end of the yearly school calendar. If our school calendar has 180 days, and the legislature declares a holiday, there are still 180 student attendance days.

In the United States we honor our greatest heroes with a holiday in which schools close.

That’s how we do it.

Schools have 180 days or so to teach about our great heroes. Whether we do it well or not is not the issue here. Certainly, if 180 days is not enough to teach about racial justice, the Civil Rights Movement and the role of the Great Man, one more won’t do the trick.

And if a school-closing holiday is the way we do it, then we should do it for Dr. King.

And hope that all of us turn our thoughts to him.

I will.

2 thoughts on “Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King.

  1. I remember the Arizona example and agree with all you say (and what an idiot governor Evan Mecham was [who was later recalled, I believe]). I’m afraid, however, that minority and women’s history simply does not get taught in many places, (perhaps) especially downstate in small communities like mine. In a small district we could coordinate a day for such an event, and ML King day seems a natural choice. You and I taught and teach in comlpletely different environments–so different, in fact, it can be difficult to find common cause. My district, Pre-K through 12, has about 300 students total. Naturally, I write from that perspective, and from the perspective of a district that is VERY (but not entirely) white.

  2. Having the holiday forces those who would rather not deal with such messy issues to at least talk about Dr. King. Not having the holiday would let an awful lot of people off the hook to just gloss right over it. If kids were in school, it would be just another test prep day. I’m not a real fan of having one specific day or one specific month to talk about “black” issues, but I’m even less fond of the idea of eliminating even that one day (month). We’re nowhere near a point where “black history” is really presented as the plain old history it really is.

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