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Commentary: On MLK Day, Acknowledge the Past to Improve U.S. Future

  • The bust of civil rights activist and leader Martin Luther King Jr. is draped with a wreath of flowers to commemorate his birthday which is observed as a federal holiday next Monday, in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)



For The Baltimore Sun
Saturday, January 13, 2018

To truly honor Martin Luther King’s legacy, it is important for us not only to celebrate the progress that the civil rights movement made possible but also to grapple with the full truth of our nation’s history, to acknowledge the inequities with which our society still struggles and to recognize our individual responsibility for social change.

As I reflect on our continued march toward social justice, I’m reminded of one of the most moving experiences from my time as U.S. secretary of education. It was in St. Paul, Minn., visiting the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School — the public elementary school where Philando Castile worked and was beloved by children, teachers, staff and families.

I visited the school to mourn with the community after “Mr. Phil,” as the kids called him, was killed in an interaction with police in Falcon Heights. Although the officer involved in Philando’s death was not convicted of murder, there is no question that the killing of Philando Castile was completely unnecessary and horrifyingly unjust.

That deaths like his keep happening without consequence is outrageous.

From my conversation at the school, it was clear that African-American and white members of the community had radically different experiences in life and in their relationships with police. A white female school staff member, for example, explained that she had never interacted with police until she began dating the man who would become her husband — who is African-American — at which point she experienced frequent traffic stops.

The conversation was moving, candid and heart wrenching. Afterward, a white parent said, “I need to change how I talk to my kids about race. Their understanding of the history of race in America has basically been, ‘Things were bad, Martin Luther King came, and now everything is all better.’ I need to explain to them how much more complicated things are.”

Indeed, our past and our present are complicated, and it’s critical for all of us to acknowledge this truth. To do so, we must confront the brutality of the institution of slavery and its defining role in America’s social, economic, and political history.

We also must appreciate the rich legacy of African-American advocacy for full recognition of our humanity and resistance to racial oppression. This legacy was palpable when Frederick Douglass asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” and when Sojourner Truth challenged, “Ain’t I a Woman?” and when King proclaimed, “I Have A Dream.”

We must understand the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the history of Reconstruction after the Civil War and the backlash against social progress reflected in the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws and lynching.

To be sure, our ability as a nation to resolve contemporary debates about protesting police brutality, challenging unfair voting restrictions and removing Confederate statues from public squares all require knowing the history of race in America. Consider how our country’s present-day struggles with racial inequities and institutionalized racism play out in education.

Data plainly show we have failed to live up to the promise of educational equity in Brown v. Board of Education. Too often African-American and Latino students receive less than their white peers: less access to quality preschool, less access to effective teachers, less access to advanced coursework, less access to school counselors and less access to resources they need to thrive.

Or consider that the African-American unemployment rate remains nearly twice that of white Americans and that Latinos face similar socioeconomic challenges — as well as new threats from the Trump administration. The reversal of protections via the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, hostility to immigrants and the grossly inadequate response to the hurricane damage in Puerto Rico are especially troubling.

And consider the 2015 report — The Color of Wealth in Boston — that found the median household net worth of African-American families in Boston is $8 (not $8,000 or even $800, but $8), while the median household net-worth of white families is more than $247,000.

Certainly, individual choices play a part in people’s life circumstances, but we must address fundamental structures of inequality. And, collectively, we can make better choices.

The inequities in our schools are a choice. Segregated housing is a choice. The policies of mass incarceration are a choice. Making it harder for people to exercise the right to vote is a choice.

When I think back on the conversation in St. Paul, I believe one of the most problematic results of the “it’s-all-better-now” account of King’s life and legacy is that such a worldview releases us from our moral responsibility to make social change.

I am convinced we will make better choices when we grapple with our history in all its complexity — the ugliness and the glory — and when we commit ourselves to increasing equity and opportunity for all.

As King implored in his final speech, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.”

John B. King Jr. president and CEO of The Education Trust and a former U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. He wrote this for the Baltimore Sun. His email is John.King@edtrust.org.