“It's not burn baby burn, but learn, baby, learn, so that you can earn, baby, earn.”
You might be surprised that the author of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” could also riff on a slogan first coined by a Los Angeles DJ and then shouted by Watts rioters.
Regardless of how he delivered the message, King knew education held the potential to improve one’s economic status and present individual and group opportunities once unimaginable.
In this case, the slain civil rights icon tailored his message to his audience, as King made the above comments during a 1967 special assembly at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, during a surprise visit prior to a rally at the Spectrum.
“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 men 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 fiction.”
King wrote the above in a 1947 essay published in a Morehouse College newspaper. Sifting through evidence and discerning fact from fiction is as much a problem today as ever, with the internet and social media promoting all sorts of falsehoods.
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
King saw the connection between education and equality. His comments below, made during his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech at the University of Oslo, indicate he viewed education as a “civil right” no different than voting rights or equal access to public facilities.
“The group consisting of mother, father and child is the main educational agency of mankind.”
Even as Dr. King fought institutional racism in the systems established to educate children and adults, he espoused that learning begins at home. His comments below, taken alongside his encouragement to the Philly students, indicate he believed everyone has a role to play when it comes to changing the status quo.
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
King wasn't afraid to take a stand and tell the truth about those who opposed racial equality, whether actively or through enabling silence.
On another occasion, he said:
“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
Mark R. Lowery is managing editor of Ed Post. He is a veteran journalist who has managed national magazines and worked for major newspapers, including New York Newsday, the Detroit Free Press and the Plain Dealer. He previously served as editorial director of October Research.