The Broad is Back!

January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, a childhood hero

I was brought up in a house where dad out Archie Bunkered Archie Bunker and mom and her mother were fighters for social justice. Luckily mom’s view took root in me. So in my house, Martin Luther King was a hero. I was seven when he was assassinated, and even with all the things we hear about him today, he’s still a hero to me all these years later.

Surprise, surprise! He was a human being, and humans are flawed. But the good he did far outweighs any of the bad and in my accounting, that’s what counts.

I’m a professor at a public university because education is the way to change lives and promote equality. I believe this deep in my soul. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I really do believe that love is all we need and love will light the way and all that hippie stuff of my childhood. Or more precisely, all that Transcendentalist stuff I drank in when reading Alcott as a child. And all the charismatic Catholic social justice stuff my mom taught me. I was doomed from childhood to be an idealist, and that’s all there is to it.  No wonder I have an activist Christian preacher as a hero.

But this is a rough world for idealists. Lately I find myself discouraged. I have students in the South Bronx of New York City who tell me that they never heard of Martin Luther King in school. I’m not sure whether or not to believe them, and I suspect they never heard of King because they weren’t listening, but still, this is disheartening.  I know my students overseas know King. In fact, America’s civil rights struggles are very interesting to those abroad.  They love reminding me (as if I needed it) that America has a troubling past when it comes to race. Find me a place that doesn’t, though.  Sometimes I sense a little spite in their glee.

I seem to live in a world consumed by hate, anger and nastiness. Reading the papers is a chore that I will put off for days at a time sometimes. I used to read three papers a day, but lately Twitter is about all I can handle. Actually, Twitter keeps me abreast of most things, and 140 characters on the topic is about all I can take at times.

I think that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to. I’m so overwhelmed. There is so much that needs fixing.  What would Dr. King think if he were still alive?

Things are definitely better than they were in 1968. There are President Obama, Secretaries of State Rice and Powell for starters. I know many young people who don’t even “see” race and this fills me with joy.

Statistics still stink, though. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, Blacks and Hispanics have higher poverty rates than other groups (see NPC’s Poverty facts). A lot of this ties to education. Blacks, especially Black men, are less likely to finish high school, especially here in NYC.  In 2006, two-thirds of young Black men in NYC didn’t graduate on time. These statistics chill me. We are wasting one of our most precious resources! Black men are also over represented in correctional facilities, which leads in turn to the finishing high school problem.

I teach a number of the success stories, the young men who graduated high school or earned a GED. Like their female counterparts, most have terrible academic skills, weak vocabularies and below par reading ability. They are bright, and they want to succeed, but they don’t know how. I’m told by people who study these things at my school that nationwide, 75% of those who start at community colleges in America never finish. How can they succeed when they aren’t prepared?  Of course, I have a number who do graduate. And many of them go on to four year schools, even Ivy Leagues. As I tell my students, anyone can get into CUNY, but if you get out with a diploma, you can go anywhere.

Black and Hispanic women have similar problems, of course, and they are over represented in the teenage pregnancy statistics. Too many American teens are getting pregnant, but Black and Hispanic women are three times more likely to been teen moms here in New York.  Going to school takes hard work. Going to school with a baby? Not good odds there. Not impossible, though. Some of my best students are former teen moms who have realized the importance of education in order to make their children’s lives better.

It all gets back to education with me, doesn’t it? But I think Dr. King would agree. After all, his doctorate isn’t honorary. He earned a PhD from Boston University in 1955 at the incredibly young age of 26.  He pushed through and got the degree. PhDs aren’t worth much in American society, believe me, but they represent something. They show, on some level, that education is important. It’s not the only thing, but it’s something.

So today as we remember Dr. King, I want to thank all those who still work for the dream. I’m a battered idealist, but I’m an idealist all the same. And as long as there are people out there working, the Dream stays alive.

And I can only say Amen to these famous words:

“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: / we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I Have a Dream Speech, 1963.

 

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