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.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Barack Obama shakes hands with students as he and his wife Michelle and daughter Malia participate during a day of service to honor Martin Luther King, Jr, at the Browne Education Campus school in Washington, Monday, Jan. 16.

At the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Crenshaw in Los Angeles, the Michael Brown family is settling into folding camp chairs early for a good view of the annual MLK parade. This is the man that changed their lives forever “by setting the path,” as Mr. Brown puts it, rattling off King’s accomplishments from boycotts to marches to speeches.

Does his 14-year-old son, Marcus know as much about King?

“No.” says his mother, Akisha, bluntly. “Parents and schools have dropped the ball in teaching the life and achievement of Dr. King.” Prodded for a comment while bundling up with his one-year-old sister, Akilah, Marcus blurts out shyly: “I know he said, ‘I have a dream.’”

All along the parade route, interviews show the same thing. The older generation is infused and excited about honoring the man they say made it possible for blacks and whites to attend the same schools and restaurants by standing up and demanding civil rights. Teens and younger children know King was important as a religious and political figure, but become tongue-tied when asked for details.

This disturbs Jasmyne Cannick, an African American community activist, political commentator, and nationally syndicated columnist who lives within walking distance of the parade route.

“I’m troubled because I know how much King sacrificed to get the country to tackle the civil rights issue, and my generation is complacent and forgetful of this because they’ve had it all handed to them,” she says. Asked to grade America on how well it’s done in passing on the knowledge and passion of King, she fires off, bluntly: “D-minus or F.” 

“They don’t know what organization he founded, they don’t know key lines of his speeches, they don’t know when he was killed,” she says. “I’m embarrassed and disappointed by this.”

Interviews with educators show Cannick’s observation to be essentially true, but tricky to tease out from other, bigger trends – such as the passing on of other cultural knowledge – and hard to generalize beyond specific cities.

“There is a confluence of trends that explain why there is so little knowledge among young African Americans concerning the legacy and historic contribution of MLK,” says Charles A. Gallagher, professor of sociology at LaSalle University in an email. He says in the black neighborhoods of many large cities, the drop-out rate approaches 50 percent.

“The schooling on this topic is not there. It is also the case that there is the perception that the large issues that King addressed – voting rights, labor market discrimination, and Jim Crow laws – have been addressed,” he says. “What we are seeing is the shift in norms where what was once a struggle is now taken for granted. I would say that the lack of knowledge of MLK is akin to the perception that the NAACP is no longer relevant to young African Americans. Having Barack Obama in the White House is viewed by many that the struggles for equality have been achieved.”

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

“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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