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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the decline in what younger generations know about him

The older generation is excited about honoring the man they say made desegregated schools and restaurants possible by demanding civil rights. Children may know Martin Luther King, Jr. was an important religious and political figure, but become tongue-tied when asked for details.

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While Mr. and Mrs. Brown say it is their own kids and the schools here which have “dropped the ball,” some educators disagree.

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“I would argue that it is the older generation that has dropped the ball by not knowing how to reach out to youth in ways that really engage them,” says African history professor Maghan Keita, director of Villanova’s Institute for Global Interdisciplinary Studies. As an example, he says King himself would have responded in a big way with new media – Facebook, Twitter, smart phones and other technology.

“We just haven’t yet devised the right way to engage the young in ways they find meaningful and I say that is our fault, not theirs,” says Keita.

Other educators say it’s not just a measure of dropping the ball about King, but about all things cultural.

“Proclaiming how ignorant kids are about (fill in the blank) is a blood sport in this country,” says Nancy Niemi, who chairs the education department at New Haven University, in an email. “Yes, it's awful that kids don't know about Title IX or who their senator is, or MLK, but where do they get this ignorance from? The generation before them! Also, their culture. Kids' ignorance of important social/government issues reflects, sadly, the ignorance of the culture in which they live.”

Many say the phenomenon is different depending on which city is examined. A city with a history of race struggle – like Boston or St. LouisMilwaukee or Detroit – is more likely to have educational programs and/or curriculum requirements to study King. Also, African American communities within cities sometimes come up with their own programs.

“Here in St. Louis, celebrations of Martin Luther King are among the biggest of the year, and schools participate with essay and other contests,” says Garrett Albert Duncan, who teaches African and African-American studies at Washington University. He says he has identified yet another layer of resistance for a reason that surprises him.

“This is heartbreaking to me but has come up over and over in conversations with African American parents,” he says. “They come to me almost in tears to say they didn’t want to burden their kids with the baggage of perhaps thinking that they could do their very, very best and still not succeed because of race issues beyond their control.”

The comment brings the discussion back to individual responsibility that transcends education, culture or politics, say others.

“We DO need constant reminding of his grand vision for America, but none of us is MLK Jr.” says Temple University professor Frank Farley, in an email. “So each of us, in our own way, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, must do what we can, where we are, with what we've got."

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