Can we stop asking what Martin Luther King Jr. would do?

Associated Press - Martin Luther King returned to Atlanta in 1960 to serve as co-pastor with his father at the Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Martin Luther King Jr. (AP)

Can we stop asking what Martin Luther King Jr. would do?

You can’t escape it, on television, on Twitter, on Facebook, everywhere. What would King do about education reform, or the economy, or the huge income gap, or, well, you get the idea.

Here’s the thing: While it’s pretty easy to guess that King would be, for example, hugely unhappy with the 22 percent child poverty rate in this country, exactly what he would do about it is not so easy to predict. In fact, can anyone say they really know what King would do?

As for education reform, it’s pretty easy to predict that King would want all children to have the same opportunities, but would he think charter schools and vouchers are the way to go?

I asked historian Taylor Branch, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy of books that chronicles his life and the history of the civil rights movement, whether anybody could reliably predict where King would stand on the modern education reform movement and whether he would, for instance, support the choice movement or believe it was a move away from his goal of equity for all children.

Branch, who personally believes that test-based school reform has been dangerous because it has made math and reading all important and squeezed out history, said that the answer is pretty much “no.” He said in part:

I  hesitate ever to speak for Dr. King. I never met the man and his experience and mine are pretty far apart. I’ve studied him a lot. The only answer that jumps up in me as the answer is the same thing I have been saying for the last few months when people ask me, ‘What should you do on Martin Luther King Day?’ …

King was almost always taking risks by speaking to people who disagreed with him or disliked him and the [civil rights] movement. In that sense, just going to a soup kitchen or something like that on Martin Luther King Day is only important if you are stretching yourself and asking yourself how you can solve problems …

King reached out to everyone to try to find a solution. In that sense its very instructive for a time when people on both sides of our political deadlock are locked in the pretense that if everyone on the other side would drop dead or listen to them we would have nirvana. We wouldn’t on either side.

You just have to figure out how to bridge the gaps between people by raising questions. That’s what King did.”

In 1967, in “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), King wrote:

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils: lack of education restricting job opportunities; poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative; fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development. Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy.

Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions. Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies.

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. … We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

One could take from this that at that time, King didn’t think school reform would end poverty, and he didn’t think educational reform should be driven by “economy-dominated decisions.” Someone could say he would be anti-reform, because it fails to address the consequences of living in poverty that children bring into the classroom.

But who knows? Maybe King would have changed his mind.

So let’s stop asking what he would do. Nobody knows.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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