Teaching About Progress: Lessons From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Mark Heller

I am not a big fan of Black History Month.  Please don’t get me wrong — as a history teacher, I both love and value the powerful stories and great examples that are often highlighted as part of Black History Month each February.  I’m not a fan because I dislike that the highlighting only lasts a month, and because I dislike the limiting practice of calling these important stories, contributions, and examples “Black” history.  They are important and instructive because they are vital to American history.  They are stories, contributions, and examples that should be known and appreciated by all Americans, no matter our backgrounds.  They are our history.  I’m not even certain that the most significant African-American in our history, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would embrace the concept of segregating American history as the title “Black History Month” would suggest.  King is one of the true lions of our history, and all of our children ought to be familiar with his essential teachings and his vision.  Though resisted in his day, that vision, his “Dream”, has lived long beyond his lifetime and has, in very real ways, become part of the American Dream. 

Sometimes the lessons taught by great teachers are immediately clear and self-evident.  Sometimes, however, those lessons do not take hold for many years.

When I was in high school, I was a pretty serious student of the ‘cello.  I took lessons every week.  I even practiced.  And yet, often, I would not feel success.  I would get frustrated at my obvious failure to play certain lines or passages.  I might make some stride, but then experience the sometimes crushing disappointment of the back-slide.  When I met those moments of deep frustration, my ‘cello teacher would dip into the well of her many sayings.  In those moments, she would say

“Remember, progress is not linear.”

Not:

Linegraph1, Academy at the Lakes

But:

Upanddown1, Academy at the Lakes

What a great lesson for life — progress is not linear!  This is a key to so many things, and even, I believe, to understanding history.

All students of American history know that one of the most significant problems we have faced is the set of issues involved with race.

Race issues have had their fingerprints all over our entire history.  Since the days of Columbus and Jamestown, the Triangle Trade, slavery, the Constitutional Convention, abolition, secession, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement, we have grappled with the question: How do we rise to meet the great promise of the Declaration of Independence, that  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  To far too many Americans, for far too many years, the promises of the Declaration were far from self-evident.  They were empty.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Martin Luther King showed us the way to rise.  He was our teacher.  And his lessons were immediately apparent to some, and less immediately evident to others.  But in the 54 years that have elapsed since King rose to prominence, the progress we have made — though clearly not linear — has been remarkable.  There are three essential components to Dr. King’s vision that I would like our children to remember:

1)  Integration, not Segregation

Our land can only reach its great promise through integration of the races, not through segregation.

2) Non-Violence

The best way to bring change is through peaceful, non-violent actions, through the power of words and ideas, and of simple humble, everyday people acting non-violently, and out of conscience; and

3) The Content of Our Character

That the goal is not (in King’s words) to seek the day of the black man, or the day of the white man, but the day of man as man — that what should matter to any of us and to all of us is not the color of a person’s skin, but the content of a person’s character.

The United States of America today is the richest, strongest nation on the face of the Earth. We are also probably the world’s most ethnically and racially diverse society.  We stand for great ideas, yet for many years we left ourselves open to the criticism that the promises of those ideas were empty because of our failure to deal well with issues of race.  I do not yet believe that we have yet reached the mountaintop of perfection on this issue (or many others).  Progress is not linear.  But the best-fit curve of our nation’s history clearly has a positive slope.

We all know that the system of race relations in this country for hundreds of years was unjust, unfair, and limiting for African Americans.  Martin Luther King taught us that it was limiting to all of us, be we black, white, Latin, Asian, male, female, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, straight, or gay.  King taught us that our goal ought to be a society in which all of us are judged not by the color of our skin in both its literal and metaphorical senses, but by the content of our character.  That has become, or in very real ways is becoming The American Way. 

In his famous “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” MLK wrote:

“We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of [people] willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.  We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Our children will lead us through the 21st century.  They are not as burdened by the shameful past as we, their elders, are.  I urge them to always look to the lessons of Martin Luther King as a beacon of inspiration and American values.  For though progress may not be linear, the time is always ripe to do right.

Mark Heller is Head of School at Academy at the Lakes, a PreK3- 12th grade independent school in the north Tampa area, serving students from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando Counties.