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On MLK Day, acknowledge the past to improve US future

To truly honor Martin Luther King’s legacy, it is important for us not only to celebrate the progress that the civil rights movement made possible but also to grapple with the full truth of our nation’s history, to acknowledge the inequities with which our society still struggles and to recognize our individual responsibility for social change.

As I reflect on our continued march toward social justice, I’m reminded of one of the most moving experiences from my time as U.S. secretary of education. It was in St. Paul, Minn., visiting the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School — the public elementary school where Philando Castile worked and was beloved by children, teachers, staff and families.

I visited the school to mourn with the community after “Mr. Phil,” as the kids called him, was killed in an interaction with police in Falcon Heights. Although the officer involved in Philando’s death was not convicted of murder, there is no question that the killing of Philando Castile was completely unnecessary and horrifyingly unjust. That deaths like his keep happening without consequence is outrageous.

From my conversation at the school, it was clear that African-American and white members of the community had radically different experiences in life and in their relationships with police. A white female school staff member, for example, explained that she had never interacted with police until she began dating her husband — an African-American man — at which point she experienced frequent traffic stops.

The conversation was moving, candid and heart wrenching. Afterward, a white parent shared, “I need to change how I talk to my kids about race. Their understanding of the history of race in America has basically been ‘things were bad, Martin Luther King came, and now everything is all better.’ I need to explain to them how much more complicated things are.”

Indeed, our past and our present are complicated, and it’s critical for all of us to acknowledge this truth. To do so, we must confront the brutality of the institution of slavery and its defining role in America’s social, economic, and political history.

We also must appreciate the rich legacy of African-American advocacy for full recognition of our humanity and resistance to racial oppression. This legacy was palpable when Frederick Douglass asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” and when Sojourner Truth challenged, “Ain’t I a Woman?” and when King proclaimed, “I Have A Dream.”

We must understand the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the history of Reconstruction after the Civil War and the backlash against social progress reflected in the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws and lynching.

To be sure, our ability as a nation to resolve contemporary debates about protesting police brutality, challenging unfair voting restrictions and removing Confederate statues from public squares all require knowing the history of race in America. Consider how our country’s present-day struggles with racial inequities and institutionalized racism play out in education.

Data plainly show we have failed to live up to the promise of educational equity in Brown v. Board of Education. Too often African-American and Latino students receive less than their white peers: less access to quality preschool, less access to effective teachers, less access to advanced coursework, less access to school counselors and less access to resources they need to thrive.

Or consider that the African-American unemployment rate remains nearly twice that of white Americans and that Latinos face similar socioeconomic challenges — as well as new threats from the Trump administration. The reversal of protections via the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, hostility to immigrants and the grossly inadequate response to the hurricane damage in Puerto Rico are especially troubling.

And consider the 2015 report — “The Color of Wealth in Boston” — that found the median household net worth of African-American families in Boston is $8 (not $8,000 or even $800, but $8), while the median household net-worth of white families is more than $247,000.

Certainly, individual choices play a part in people’s life circumstances, but we must address fundamental structures of inequality. And, collectively, we can make better choices.

The inequities in our schools are a choice. Segregated housing is a choice. The policies of mass incarceration are a choice. Making it harder for people to exercise the right to vote is a choice.

When I think back on the conversation in St. Paul, I believe one of the most problematic results of the “it’s-all-better-now” account of King’s life and legacy is that such a worldview releases us from our moral responsibility to make social change.

I am convinced we will make better choices when we grapple with our history in all its complexity — the ugliness and the glory — and when we commit ourselves to increasing equity and opportunity for all.

As King implored in his final speech, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.”

Today in History

Today is Saturday, Jan. 13, the 13th day of 2018. There are 352 days left in the year.

Today's Highlight in History:

On Jan. 13, 1968, country singer Johnny Cash performed and recorded a pair of shows at Folsom State Prison in California; material from the concerts was released as an album by Columbia Records under the title "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison," which proved a hit.

On this date:

In 1733, James Oglethorpe and some 120 English colonists arrived at Charleston, South Carolina, while en route to settle in present-day Georgia.

In 1794, President George Washington approved a measure adding two stars and two stripes to the American flag, following the admission of Vermont and Kentucky to the Union. (The number of stripes was later reduced to the original 13.)

In 1864, American songwriter Stephen Foster died in poverty in a New York hospital at age 37.

In 1898, Emile Zola's famous defense of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, "J'accuse," (zhah-KOOZ') was published in Paris.

In 1915, a magnitude-7 earthquake centered in Avezzano, Italy, claimed some 30,000 lives.

In 1941, a new law went into effect granting Puerto Ricans U.S. birthright citizenship. Novelist and poet James Joyce died in Zurich, Switzerland, less than a month before his 59th birthday.

In 1962, comedian Ernie Kovacs died in a car crash in west Los Angeles 10 days before his 43rd birthday.

In 1978, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey died in Waverly, Minnesota, at age 66.

In 1982, an Air Florida 737 crashed into Washington, D.C.'s 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River while trying to take off during a snowstorm, killing a total of 78 people; four passengers and a flight attendant survived.

In 1990, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia became the nation's first elected black governor as he took the oath of office in Richmond.

In 1997, seven black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for World War II valor; the lone survivor of the group, former Lt. Vernon Baker, received his medal from President Bill Clinton at the White House.

In 2012, the Italian luxury liner Costa Concordia ran aground off the Tuscan island of Giglio and flipped onto its side; 32 people were killed.

Ten years ago: President George W. Bush, visiting the United Arab Emirates, gently urged authoritarian Arab allies to satisfy frustrated desires for democracy in the Mideast and saved his harshest criticism for Iran, branding it "the world's leading state-sponsor of terror." The winners of the Golden Globe Awards were announced in a dry, news conference-style ceremony lasting only 31 minutes, devoid of stars because of the Hollywood writers' strike; "Atonement" won best motion picture drama, while "Mad Men" was named best dramatic TV series.

Five years ago: A Cairo appeals court overturned Hosni Mubarak's life sentence and ordered a retrial of the former Egyptian president for failing to prevent the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that toppled his regime. (Mubarak was later acquitted.) "Argo" won best motion picture drama at the Golden Globes; "Homeland" won best TV dramatic series.

One year ago: Republicans drove a budget through Congress giving them an early but critical victory in their crusade to scrap President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Federal prosecutors in Detroit announced that Takata Corp. had agreed to plead guilty to a single criminal charge and pay $1 billion in fines and restitution for concealing a deadly defect in its air bag inflators. Lord Snowdon, the society photographer and filmmaker who married Britain's Princess Margaret and continued to mix in royal circles even after their divorce, died in London at age 86. Dick Gautier (goh-tee-AY'), the Tony-nominated actor who found fame as Hymie the Robot on the 1960s sitcom "Get Smart," died in Arcadia, California, at age 85.

Today's Birthdays: Actress Frances Sternhagen is 88. TV personality Nick Clooney is 84. Comedian Rip Taylor is 84. Comedian Charlie Brill is 80. Actor Billy Gray is 80. Actor Richard Moll is 75. Rock musician Trevor Rabin is 64. Rhythm-and-blues musician Fred White is 63. Rock musician James Lomenzo (Megadeth) is 59. Actor Kevin Anderson is 58. Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus is 57. Rock singer Graham "Suggs" McPherson (Madness) is 57. Country singer Trace Adkins is 56. Actress Penelope Ann Miller is 54. Actor Patrick Dempsey is 52. Actress Suzanne Cryer is 51. Actress Traci Bingham is 50. Actor Keith Coogan is 48. TV producer-writer Shonda Rhimes is 48. Actress Nicole Eggert is 46. Actor Ross McCall is 42. Actor Michael Pena is 42. Actor Orlando Bloom is 41. Meteorologist Ginger Zee (TV: "Good Morning America") is 37. Actress Ruth Wilson is 36. Actor Julian Morris is 35. Actor Liam Hemsworth is 28.

Thought for Today: "A little too much is just enough for me." — Jean Cocteau, French author and filmmaker (1889-1963).