Of Hurricanes, MLK, and making sense of the world

Yesterday was August 28, 2011. We’re in the middle of Hurricane Season, and although it did a great deal of damage in New England (especially Vermont), Hurricane Irene thankfully did not seem to do as much damage as predicted. Here’s the front page of Monday’s Washington Post:

If not for Hurricane Irene, the country’s attention would have turned to the site of the new Martin Luther King memorial that was scheduled to be dedicated this Sunday.

Forty Eight years ago this Sunday, on August 28, 1963, a group of about 250,000 people attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

There were many speeches and musical acts on that sweltering August day 48 years ago in Washington, DC [if you are a middle or high school student, and you have never heard of A. Philip Randolph, one of the chief organizers of the March on Washington, go look him up right now.] The big speech at the end of the day — indeed, one of the biggest speeches given in US history — was given by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We know that speech as the I Have A Dream speech (if you have never seen the speech in its entirety, find 15 minutes and click on the link and watch the first part of his speech — here’s part two, and part three).

That speech is arguably most famous for this line:

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.

As the 48th anniversary of that famous speech approached, Hurricane Irene made its way up the East Coast of the United States. Indeed, the ceremony to dedicate the new MLK Memorial on the National Mall was delayed because of the hurricane.

It occurs to me — and this is the reason for the title of this post — that Dr. King helped lead a movement that hit the country in the 1950s and 1960s like a hurricane of justice. It turned things upside down and made people question the way they had been acting.

That’s not the way things are any more. At least not overtly. But a look at most public schools in the US — especially urban schools –reveals a great deal of segregation. UCLA professor Gary Orfield has written about this phenomena, and if you run this simple Google search, you will get lots of results to choose from:

Here’s a short excerpt from that last result from the Christian Science Monitor:

Sadly, in our shorthand world, Dr. King is often seen as a pacifistic hero — the man with the dream — and is not viewed as any sort of threat. After all, who can argue with a man who had a dream that everyone would be treated equal?

But there’s far more to the text of Dr. King’s speech than that one line. And there’s far more to Dr. King’s career than that one speech. We need the time to slow down and work to unravel some of the complexity of past events.

On a day when many people are thinking and writing about Dr. King, for example, it’s important to remember that in the last four years of his life (starting in 1964 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize) Dr. King’s message became more radical.

He moved away from political and social equality and started to focus on economic inequality. When he was assassinated (at the young age of 39), he was in Memphis helping to protest the working conditions of garbage workers in that city.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., wrote a piece in Sunday’s Washington Post titled Let’s honor the real Dr. King, ‘an extremist for love’ that is worth reading. That piece concludes with the idea that Dr. King was far more dangerous than the “I Have a Dream” speech might suggest. Here’s the last paragraph of Mr. Dionne’s column:

We have rendered King safe so we can honor him. But we should honor him because he did not play it safe. He urged us to break loose from “the paralyzing chains of conformity.” Good advice in every generation — and hard advice, too.

Dr. King also courageously spoke out against the Vietnam War — most famously in a 1967 speech titled Beyond Vietnam. Sadly, I have found that Dr. King’s speech — about how the war in Vietnam was taking funds away from anti-poverty programs and was corrupting the soul of America — still works today if you substitute “Afghanistan and Iraq” for “Vietnam.”

Cornel West, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, wrote a column in Saturday’s New York Times that Dr. King would be weeping in his grave because of the rampant “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism” in our world today.

Most people who read this blog are upper middle to upper class folks. Superficially, as we look around, things seem to look pretty good as far as Dr. King’s dream goes — there’s far more getting along and far more integration in many walks of life than there was in the 1960s. There are no more segregated drinking fountains and most schools and companies have diversity goals.

But Dr. King was not superficial. He would be reading Gary Orfield’s reports about the re-segregation of our urban schools. Dr. King would not be satisfied until, as he put it, “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (That’s actually a quote from the Bible — Amos 5:24)

Dr. King said, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In a world where it’s possible at the click of a mouse to know about injustice in places like Syria (government crackdown) and Somalia (famine), I wonder what Dr. King would talk about today.

And I can’t help wondering, on this 48th anniversary of Dr. King’s dream, what he would have said about this country’s response to a more powerful hurricane than Irene (which again, thankfully, did not do as much damage as predicted).

What would Dr. King would have said about Hurricane Katrina, which occurred roughly six years ago today? And what (if anything) do today’s middle school students know about that hurricane? Students who are 12 today would have been six when Katrina happened (they were one year old when 9/11 happened).

Do middle school students today know anything about a hurricane that, according to Wikipedia, “was the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes, in the history of the United States”?

Do today’s students know that “Among recorded Atlantic hurricanes, [Katrina] was the sixth strongest overall. At least 1,836 people died in the actual hurricane and in the subsequent floods, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane; total property damage was estimated at $81 billion (2005 USD), nearly triple the damage wrought by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.”

What should students today know about the recent past? What should they know about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Where in the curriculum do we have time to talk about these big events — events that tell us a great deal about our character as a nation by revealing how we respond to disasters like Katrina and how we respond to attacks such as 9/11? When — if ever — is violence justified? Hmmm, did Dr. King have anything to say about that topic of violence?

At the school I plan to open in August of 2013, we will discuss such issues on a regular basis because we will read and think about the news and try to make sense of the world we live in. We will read multiple accounts of Dr. King’s speech and consider its meaning 48 years later from many perspectives.

Events such as Hurricane Irene’s postponement of the dedication of the MLK Memorial (click to see a cool slide show from PBS’s NewsHour) will lead to extended conversations that put recent events in historical context.

If we decided to pursue this news story in more depth (as we would do on occasion, when students’ interest becomes piqued by a morning discussion) middle school students could take the time to read and discuss many of the links in this post.

For example, we could take a few days to unpack Letter from Birmingham Jail, a letter that is acknowledged as a classic piece of political literature, and which is entirely within the comprehension of accomplished middle school readers — if they are given time and context.

We might even try to connect MLK with hurricanes, for example — as I’ve tried to do with this post. Because of a flexible curriculum, we’d even have time to integrate a science lesson to explore where hurricanes come from. The idea is that current events — such as hurricanes and MLK monuments — can serve as a springboard to discuss issues that students find compelling.

One of my favorite sections from Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech is the part where he responds to critics who wonder:

“Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

I worry that students today are too busy preparing for standardized tests at the end of the year (including AP tests) and as a result have no time to follow the news. Therefore they also “do not know the world in which they live.”

They do know their GPA to several decimal places (ask them), and they know what they have been told colleges want to see on their transcript.

Our institutions of higher learning — starting with our middle schools — should help broaden students’ perspective and give them a better sense of the world in which they live.

There are some pretty amazing things happening in today’s world — good and bad — and we owe it to young adults to treat them with respect and help them make sense of their world.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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