On Marting Luther King, Jr., Day there is something we should remember about the Civil Rights Movement that seems to escape most people. I have a more complete essay online about this but I'll just summarize here.
MLK came to prominence with the Rosa Parks boycott in 1955. The Civil Rights Act didn't occur until nearly ten years later. There is no question that MLK showed great courage and leadership in pursuing nonviolent action in the face of night riders, lynchings and police violence that were common in that era. But there is something more subtle that occurred in the Civil Rights Movement that is particularly relevant to education.
Very little occurred to advance Civil Rights during the 1950s despite the 1954 Brown v. Board decision or the Rosa Parks boycott. The real impetus for change occurred when a small group of students started a lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960. That sparked copycat sit-ins across the country.
My point is that students, not adults, were the real source of the Civil Rights Act. Indeed, the students who started the sit-in were college students but the business community stonewalled them because they felt once summer vacation arrived the students would give up.
And to a certain extent they were right, but when the college students faltered the sit-in was continued and expanded by local high school students. It was then the business community capitulated.
Somehow those students had learned something about freedom and responsibility and courage, and it is my opinion that to this day the conservatives in America blame the education system, probably rightfully so.
More importantly, the sit-ins across the country inspired the organization of the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that inspired and supported leaders across the country.
When the adults of the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) organized the Freedom Riders bus tour across the south in 1961 it met such violence that the adults abandoned the effort in Birmingham, Alabama. However, students from SNCC took over the bus tour and continued into Montgomery where a mob severely beat the riders.
However, the bus tour continued into Mississippi where they were all arrested and put on trial. That, in turn, prompted more students to join the protest. The students eventually won that case and the federal interstate regulatory commission issued new rules about buses.
Again, it was inspired students whose only real experience in life was in public school classrooms that achieved this critical victory.
It is perhaps even more instructive that the crucial Civil Rights March in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 was nearing collapse as marchers were arrested and put in jail. Even MLK was in jail, where he wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." The protest had essentially been defeated and when MLK was released from jail he met with his leadership and as he noted in his memoirs he looked around the room and saw failure in their faces.
This was before any firehoses were used against them, before any police dogs attacked them. Dr. King finally agreed with some of his advisors that young people had to be brought into the protest. So Dr. King sent out the word to teenagers and high school students to join the protest.
It was a decisive decision and the White leadership realized it. Those scenes of firehoses and police dogs used against the protesters were after the young people joined the protest, but the young people kept marching and eventually prevailed. That victory elevated Dr. King to a new status.
In other words, as you celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, it is important to recognize that his success came almost entirely from the young people of America's schools. You may never know the consequences of your inspiring young people and today we still don't have popular recognition of what inspired the young people, boys and girls, to stand up against Jim Crow.
If we teach history correctly, however, we need to emphasize that it wasn't adults who triumphed in Civil Rights, it was inspired young people. It was the inspired young people who inspired Dr. King. Who inspired them?
Anthropologist Margaret Mead's daughter Catherine Bateson spoke at a conference I attended. Professor Bateson noted that her mother had written in the book Culture and Commitment about how rapid technological change meant that adults had to learn from children. She made it a point to ask students when she visited schools: "what have you taught your parents?"
She noted that this inquiry always followed a peculiar pattern: children at first were hesitant to recognize examples, but then started giving technological examples such as "to program the VCR" or "to use the computer." But Bateson said the next step was more profound: students began to volunteer that they taught their parents ethical behavior: to begin recycling, to stop disparaging homosexuals or minorities, and other issues.
Change came from children, change comes from children who learn about the world around them in classrooms and are inspired by teachers to change that world.