“Q&A” on Education with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Interview” by Rev. Girien Salazar, director of the Faith and Education Coalition

How often do we hear a moderator ask a panel of historians or researchers, “What would ‘this person’ say if he (or she) were around today?” Well, it’s my turn to ask some questions, not to a panel but to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, using his words as framework and adapting them for our discussion on education. Please pardon the liberality I take at using some of his words out of context. My only aim is that by exercising his words we might learn to what extent – be it little or much – our dialogue in (and state of) American society has changed since the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King, what is it that people of color and marginalized minority groups are fighting for in America today?

“We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.”[i]

You mentioned education. What kinds of issues in education were you fighting for at the height of your career?

“The Supreme Court of our nation rendered a decision back in 1954 declaring segregation in the public schools unconstitutional. And that next year in 1955 it came back stating that every school district was to integrate “with all deliberate speed.” And yet we came into 1966 with the terrible realization that only 5.2 percent of the Negro students of the South had been placed in integrated schools, which meant in substance that we haven’t made 1 percent progress a year. And if it continued at that pace it would take another ninety-six years to integrate the public schools of the South.

“And so, the Department of Education decided that the process had to be speeded up on the basis of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. And this department decided to set forth certain basic guidelines that had to be followed. The guidelines stated in substance that the process of integration had to be speeded up; that all grades had to be integrated; that even faculties had to be integrated. And this plan, or these guidelines, was submitted to every school district and that school district had to decide whether it would follow the guidelines. If it refused to follow the guidelines then federal funds would be cut off. If it complied with the guidelines then federal funds would be continued”[ii]

Your daughter Bernice argues we still have “segregated education” in America today based on the fact that the standards of education that a student is held up to and the amount of success he or she has in school is largely predicted by the income level of their parents and the zip code in which they reside, which many argue can be tied to race. What are your thoughts on this form of segregation?

“WHEREAS desegregation is the order of the day with support of the Constitution, Supreme Court of the United States, the climate of world opinion, the moral order and the laws of God, we resolve to address all of our energies to the removal of every vestige of segregation from our midst.”[iii]

I have heard you say, “Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.”[iv] What would you tell pastors who do not like to get involved in “political issues” but who serve families in communities where public schools are not adequately preparing students for life after high school, be it college or a career?

“I feel the people who are working for civil rights should be working for peace and I feel that those who are working for peace should be working for civil rights and justice . . .Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a molder of consensus. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”[v]

Let’s talk about education from a more general perspective. What would you say is the goal of education in a culture inundated with “fake news?”

“Education must . . . train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”[vi]

Do you have a message to those who incessantly try to keep religion separate from our public schools?

“Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. The late Eugene Talmadge, in my opinion, possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America. Moreover, he wore the Phi Beta Kappa key. By all measuring rods, Mr. Talmadge could think critically and intensively; yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated? We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character– that is the goal of true education.”[vii]

Although I have a good guess of what you’ll say, I’m going to ask you anyway because these words still inspire me. What thoughts would you like to offer our audience in closing?

 “I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, 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 that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today.”[viii]

Thank you, Dr. King. I’ve truly enjoyed my time with you today.


[i]From “Kick Up Dust,” letter to the editor, Atlanta Constitution – August 6, 1946
[ii]From “Guidelines for a Constructive Church,” sermon – June 5, 1966
[iii]From “Albany Manifesto” – July 15, 1962
[iv]From “The Purpose of Education,” article – January 1, 1947- February 28, 1947
[v]From “A Proper Sense of Priorities,” speech – February 6, 1968
[vi]From “The Purpose of Education,” article – January 1, 1947- February 28, 1947
[vii]From “The Purpose of Education,” article – January 1, 1947- February 28, 1947
[viii]From “I Have a Dream,” speech – August 28, 1963