Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the Power of Protest, and the Need for Culturally Relevant Education

Duane Wardally, Director of Academics at the Urban Assembly

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., our American hero, a beacon of light who carried the values of equity and inclusion in his every footstep, is often limited to a well wrought box. While we acknowledge MLK in symbol, does his legacy truly live in practice? Quite often, our tone, our rhetoric, our sanitization of his ideology, comes at the expense of sincere and authentic acknowledgement of the life he lived and the ways in which his legacy shows up today.

On MLK Day, the media often veers to the stories in the Black and Brown zip codes of our nation, to shine an ephemeral spotlight on how we make a difference in our communities. On this day, a middle-class neighbor, eager to keep up with the Joneses and “do the right thing”, may volunteer at a soup kitchen, only to wait an entire year before engaging in their next act of service. Albeit, on MLK Day, the MLK signs that boast Martin Luther King, Jr Street, Drive, Parkway, or Boulevard, stay in a well wrought box — a box so many are afraid to open. A box that said neighbor avoids throughout the year, except this particular day for a few hours of service.

Our nation is a story of boxes, imposed by White supremacy, refined by White supremacists, maintained and upheld by White privilege. Our history permits for White people to own access to all of the boxes, and to disparage those — Black and Brown — who speak truth to the yesterday and today of institutionalized racism. To honor the legend in 2021 means looking at our history and present simultaneously and honestly. To honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2021 means adopting collective and individual policies and practices that uproot White supremacy in our everyday society. To honor Dr. King, requires us to uplift his authentic narrative and to embrace the spirit of protest for change.

MLK used protest as a means to assert equal rights with the Montgomery public bus system. MLK protested along a mosaic of influential Americans, religious and non-partisan, in Selma Alabama. MLK used protest to make change happen; thus, his “I Have a Dream” speech reverberates as a cornerstone of American freedom of speech. The right to protest is a sanct institution, and our fight toward equity in education and civil rights is rooted in this right.

The power of protest is inextricably connected to a powerful, culturally relevant education. Our students need to be nourished with the accurate depiction of our American heroes of color, where MLK is touted as a pillar to the American idea of life. In our course curricula, let the tone, rhetoric, and narrative, in its true historical root, honor our heroes and the factual realities of the time. Let’s move beyond acknowledging our Black heroes and their legacy only in the designated moment. Our students and our society deserve longstanding, honest engagement with heroes like MLK. Our students should be able to demonstrate mastery of his actions, and have the capacity to align yesterday’s and today’s racial injustice. Our students should be encouraged to walk in his legacy of racial justice and protest.

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