Letter from Birmingham Jail: A Lesson for All

Any of my former students will tell you that my favorite text to use in the classroom was “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I still dream about teaching an entire course structured around the letter. I love the many avenues it opens for rich discussion, the ways in which it models argumentation, the way students respond to the power and beauty of Martin Luther King’s persuasion.

I usually saved the text for February, when the context of Black History Month made the letter seem more immediate for my students. While the fresh eyes of my students usually found the relevance of King’s opinions and arguments engaging, I found the its relevance increasingly dismaying as the years went by.

I hid it from my students, but the joy I felt watching my students eagerly learn never quite overcame the sadness I felt at the ways in which our country hasn’t changed enough in the half century since King wrote the letter.

At the beginning of the letter, King explains the reasoning behind the direct action campaign he was leading in Birmingham. He points out that although the business leaders of the city had assured the African American community that they would remove signs segregating blacks from whites in their establishments, it didn’t take long for blacks to realize that they were “the victims of a broken promise.” The signs were not removed.

Too many children in this country are also victims of a broken promise – the fundamental promise of education. Discussions of education are always accompanied by promises of social mobility, promises of progress toward of equality, promises of hope. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of students of color, students with disabilities, and students from poverty languish in classrooms across the country. Their schools fail to hold them to high standards, their states refuse to hold failing schools accountable, and their country continues to turn a blind eye to the way it has failed far too many kids.

This broken promise doesn’t just affect a small group of unlucky children. King reminds us that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” If the destiny of some is to fail, then we all fail. Local failures are national failures.

In an age in which we constantly search for innovative solutions, it’s easy to look beyond the simple answers to what ails the public school system. There are places where kids are succeeding regardless of their zip code, their family’s income, or the color of their skin. States must stick to implementing high standards, and supporting teachers as they help kids become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and productive citizens of our country. Schools and districts must be held accountable when kids simply are not learning, and we have to come together to figure out ways to support struggling schools, today, so that an entire generation of students isn’t overlooked.

“Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood,” King writes. “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

The Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) gives states a fresh opportunity to realize this part of King’s letter. States are empowered to hold themselves accountable, to work with leaders in the community – from business leaders to civil rights leaders to parents and teachers – in order to “make real the promise of democracy” in this generation.

Despite the realities of 1963 America, Martin Luther King never stopped believing that things could be better, that the privileged would stand up for justice and the powerless would stand together to demand their rights. Even from the cell in which he was unjustly jailed, he wrote that those who bravely fought for justice helped to carve “a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.”

And today, thousands of teachers and parents and leaders refuse to give up on the democratic promise of education. They fight for high standards. They champion accountability. They believe in kids.

“By raising standards for everyone,” explains Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, schools “can help bridge the education achievement gap and create a new reality in which all students are adequately prepared to excel regardless of family income, ethnicity or where they live.”

It has been 54 years since King wrote his letter. Our schools, and our country, can’t afford to wait another 54 years to rise to the call for high standards and equity. States and districts must use their authority under ESSA to lift every classroom “to the solid rock of human dignity.” As King writes, “the time is always ripe to do right.”

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