The Meaning and Message of MLK Day

By David Amirsadri

We are often blind to the unpleasantness beyond the East Greenwich bubble. As Americans, we fail to realize that social mobility– that pillar of the American mythos– is nonexistent for many. At a high-achieving school, students, we are told, will ascend upwards to roles as highly educated professionals. Doctors. Lawyers. Teachers. But this White-Picket-Fence view of success, though laudable, insulates us from reality– hence the importance of Martin Luther King Day. Rarely do we ponder the significance of federal holidays. To most, they’re just days off. Days to catch up on schoolwork. Days to catch up on Netflix. Days to tick off of one’s calendar. I wanted to change that, and so, I recently sat down with three esteemed faculty members to discuss their views on the meaning and significance of Martin Luther King.

To begin with, I was curious as to my interviewees’ thoughts on the state of social equality.  For Mr. T. Kenney, Dr. King’s message represents a call for continuous growth and development, for continuously expanding our morality. In Mr. Kenney’s view, we can never fully realize the endpoint of Dr. King’s vision– King’s dream of equality is a path that society must forever travel. King, who led boycotts of the Montgomery bus system, would likely have agreed. Personally, it is my view that Dr. King’s dream– while far from being realized– indeed tells of a final destination to which we must aspire. Another teacher with whom I spoke pointed to the miraculous progress made since the days of Dr. King. “If you compare the time between the 1960’s and now, more children of color have opportunities, more people of color have opportunities, and we realize more the challenges that people of color in struggling communities might face,” noted a pensive Mrs.T. Garno. But like Mr. Kenney, she recognizes the limited nature of progress. “Even though we’ve come a long way since the sixties and seventies, we have a ways to go. Have we realized MLK’s dream, where we can sit down at a table with each other and not see color as a part of our differences?” she queried. In some contexts– yes. In others, unfortunately– no.

Next, I inquired as to the role of schools in the fight for social justice. Mrs. J. Driscoll, who teaches Honors Sociology, discussed the nature of the American criminal justice system. Far from being blind, she noted, the law’s eyes are fixed squarely upon wealth and race. “In Sociology, we examine how race and money factor into who does hard time, who gets executed, and who gets out with a slap on the wrist,” she noted elegiacally. She added that history classes at East Greenwich High School frequently incorporate ideas of race and social justice, and that English classes examine the same concepts through literary analysis. Additionally, Mrs. Garno spoke to the importance of fostering lively debate in the classroom. Early in her teaching career, she had been hesitant to engage her students in discussions about the controversies of the day– something she regrets. “A lot of those hot-button, heat-under-the-collar issues are avoided to the detriment of our society. Unless we start having those conversations and we come at them from positions of compassion, empathy, and understanding, we’re not going to progress. We’re going to go backwards.” Moreover, she stressed the importance of understanding and engaging with ideas about class and race. “I don’t think we fully understand elements of social inequity, because it makes us uncomfortable to do so… unless we start having those conversations, MLK’s dream is still pretty distant.” For her, ignorance is the mother of all evil. 

Martin Luther King never lived to witness his legacy. He never witnessed the tenure of America’s first African American president, of the fight for LGBT rights, or of the ascent of women into high office. But as Americans, it is our duty to stop and appreciate all these things, to stop and think about the blood, sweat, and tears that have been put into these fights for equality. In trying times, it is our job to regard each other with love, with empathy, and with understanding.