The Learning Legacy of MLK
January 21, 2019 | Ann Kowal Smith
The conscience of a generation, Martin Luther King, Jr. created and nurtured the civil rights movement. He told powerful stories, connected people across difference and inspired his followers to stand up to oppression through non-violent protest. Architect of a never-ending journey, Dr. King’s legacy reminds us to continue his work. By reflecting on our actions, treating each other with openness and respect, and calling out injustice, we keep alive his dream that his children – and all children – “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Prolific writer and keen observer of human nature, Dr. King was both a teacher and a learner. In fact, some of his less-known writings reveal another critical element of his philosophy and his legacy: the power of collective learning.
In a 1961 article for the New York Times, Dr. King applauded the advancement of the civil rights movement on college campuses, begun and sustained by black students. Studying “questions of peace, civil liberties, capital punishment,” black students gave birth to “a revival of social awareness across campuses from Cambridge to California,” a revival that bridged both class and race. Fueled by history and philosophy, and coupled with an examination of African freedom movements, they collectively set the tone for a new inclusive expectation for social justice.
Learning is an Equalizer
In his essay, Dr. King reminds us that education and learning are “tools for shaping the future and not devices of privilege for an exclusive few.” Learning – and in particular, social learning – is an equalizer. What we learn from each other is broader than anything we can learn alone.
Social learning can and must happen every day – at home, at work and in society at large. But learning in familiar circles is not enough. Dr. King exhorts us to recognize contributions, to hear diverse voices and learn new lessons from and with others different from ourselves. Our contemporary education system trains us to assume that knowledge and wisdom follow hierarchical structures: those with the most education have earned the right to be the smartest in the room. But when we honor these structures, we weaken our organizations, culture and communities – we threaten the fabric of inclusive or equitable society. We undervalue the wisdom of life experience. We rob less powerful individuals of a voice and we deprive the collective of the value of their experiences and perspectives.
To more clearly see this point, consider the opposite. One of the cruelest ways to dehumanize a population is to prevent them from learning. In our own history, it was a crime to teach a slave to read or write. Learning is a form of freedom that can never be taken away. Learning together multiplies that freedom exponentially. The only way we can all be free is to learn to step into each other’s shoes and see the world through other eyes.
Inclusion Must Be Based in Learning
We continue to seek true inclusion and belonging in our workplaces and our communities, and more progress lays ahead of us than behind. In his piece, aptly titled “The Time for Freedom Has Come,” Dr. King reminds us to recognize and remember a broader definition of learning: human growth at the intersection of “academic learning from books and classes, and life’s lessons from responsible participation in social action.” Fifty-seven years later his voice rings loud and clear. Our own social action must be based in learning, but also in the energy and inspiration we receive from each other’s perspectives.
Dr. King ends his piece with something he learned from one of the students he describes, a young man “far more poetic with a basketball than with words:”
I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see,
I sought my God, but he eluded me,
I sought my brother, and I found all three.
As we take some time to remember the legacy of this great teacher, leader and learner, we are wise to open our own hearts and minds to learning from every possible source, and to be informed and shaped by the contributions we least expect.
Image: Glenn Ligon, Double America 2, 2014, The Broad Collection, via Jeremy Thompson, Flickr.
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Ann Kowal Smith
Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.