Dr. King's message still shaping local students
Published: Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 at 3:03 p.m.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of peace, justice and equality ignited millions to action in the 1960s. Today, King inspires new generations, as educators impart his messages onto students.
Collin Whitlock teaches English to eighth-graders at Kanapaha Middle School. He says King's life provides students with an example of standing up for what they believe in.
“He did a lot more than make the ‘I Have a Dream' speech,” he says. “He taught us there's such a thing as believing in the importance of a cause. Real change takes sacrifice, and it shouldn't be taken lightly.”
Whitlock says his students will watch a documentary about the Children's Crusade, a march that took place in Birmingham in 1963. King, along with hundreds of students, planned a march downtown to talk to the mayor about the city's segregation policies, but they were met by the city's then Chief of Police Bull Connor, who used fire hoses and police dogs to stop their progress.
Whitlock says 800 children between the ages of 4 and 17 were arrested over a three-day period.
“King helped organize it, but it was the kids who had power and made real change,” he says. “I'm asking my kids to investigate causes they believe in so strongly that they'd be willing to stand up and fight for them. It's an interesting thing for them to think about — would you be willing to be put in cuffs and spend a night in jail?”
Donald DeVito, music director at Sidney Lanier School, says he is teaching his students music from African-American artists like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington, as well as the protest gospel “We Shall Overcome” this week. By talking about where Ellington could and could not play his music in the 1950s, DeVito aims to bring issues like segregation to a human level for his students, who have mild to profound disabilities.
DeVito says King's message of equality rings especially true for his students, as issues of equal rights and equal access for those with disabilities are still being decided by lawmakers today.
“I make King's lessons real for my students with more profound disabilities by focusing on the importance of being fully included in society,” he says. “The idea of equal rights is important especially when giving our students the opportunity to interact in events with their nondisabled peers.”
Dante Buckley, technologist at St. Francis Catholic High School, says students in his computer applications class are creating interactive books based on King's “I Have a Dream” speech. Using the Apple program iBooks Author, students write text and create 3-D images about their own dreams.
“King gives them a lot of inspiration,” he says. “They're researching how he motivated others to learn how to motivate each other and themselves.”
Since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor the civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been promoted as a day of service and education, says Paul Ortiz, a professor of history at the University of Florida.
“The goal is to use the day to do something in service for the community. It is not a day of passive remembrance, but of action,” he says.
The floating holiday, which falls on the third Monday in January, was first observed in 1986, but not in all 50 states until 2000.
Ortiz says King's genius was in combining education and action in pursuit of social justice.
“Unless we take action based on that education, we're not living full human lives. We're just watching the world go by,” he says. “His love of justice pushes us in our own lives to think, ‘Am I doing enough?' ”
Whitlock says he hopes through teaching about King's life and the civil rights era, his students will come to see King not as a mythical character of another era, but as a flesh-and-blood human being who spurred real change.
“They think it's beyond their ability to do something similar. They don't feel like there's anything left to fight [for],” he says. “Hopefully it makes an impression on the kids. If it wasn't for King and for many others who fought and gave their lives, they wouldn't be living the way they do today.”