What Would MLK Say?

With all the excitement surrounding the start of school, it is easy to forget about our country’s and world’s current struggles with so much violence and loss of life.  How does a school approach such difficult subject matters? At Walker, two of our Core Values provide the answer.  We believe that:

  • the school plays an important role in teaching students to value themselves and others; and
  • the school should provide the foundation and framework for giving students the skills and flexibility that are necessary to thrive in a changing world.
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Dr. Cindy Schafer, Walker’s Social Studies Department Chair, leading discussion in class

These core beliefs are the foundation upon which difficult conversations are based and are part of what attracts both families and teachers to join our community.  Students, parents, and teachers embrace dialogue about difficult topics, recognizing that answers are often complex.

Let me share an example from the classroom.  Over the last twenty-two years, I have taught a history elective on the American Civil Rights movement.  It is a class that deals with difficult topics on a weekly basis – slavery, lynching, segregation, civil disobedience, mob rule, injustice, racism, etc.  Often, in the midst of explosive current events, students discuss the similarities and differences between an historical civil rights event, like the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, with present-day violence that has taken place in cities like Paris, Orlando, Nice, Istanbul, and too many others. As we near the anniversary of the March on Washington, I find myself reflecting on what Martin Luther King, Jr. would say about today’s events were he alive. In fact, this is an assignment I frequently give my students and have even challenged myself to complete.

While it is hard to pick just one quote from a man who was one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, this is the quote I would select in completing the assignment:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.”

(excerpt from a 1957 sermon of Dr. King’s)

MLK March

MLK Jr. at the March on Washington

While recognizing that Dr. King would always want those guilty of brutality or harassment brought to justice, such an assignment gives us the opportunity to discuss revenge, taking the law into your own hands, and the effect each has on a society built upon the rule of law.  Certainly students would be asked how such present-day violence is different from a lynch mob that circumvented the judicial process to carry out its own judgement “at the hands of persons unknown.”  In the Lower School or Middle School classroom, the comparison might be made to the way we treat people who have wronged us  – with a word or on the playground.

Dr. King’s life’s work, striving tirelessly to make the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness equally available to all citizens, helped America become more aligned with its own core values.  Perhaps the greatest lesson we can share with our students is that our country, like each of us, is a work in progress, and sometimes, discussing troubling current events in light of historical events helps us gain a more balanced perspective on our individual journey to become a better person or collective journey to create a “more perfect union.”

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