Editor's Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
Image Above: The folk singer Joan Baez joins King in escorting children to their newly integrated school in Grenada, Mississippi, in 1966.
About employment, housing, and the military—institutions central to Americans’ social life—Martin Luther King Jr. had plenty to say. But about schools and education, perhaps surprisingly, he said less.
One reason may have been timing. The landmark education battle of the civil-rights movement took place when King was at the beginning of his career. The Supreme Court struck down the legality of “separate but equal” public schools in 1954, the year he became a pastor, one year after he got married, and one year before he completed his doctoral work.
Although many of the educational fights of King’s era were local and legislative, we can infer from his writings and speeches that his hope for the educational future of America’s black children was more ambitious than desegregation alone. In 1947, as an undergraduate at Morehouse College, King published in the campus newspaper a short treatise on the purpose of education. He argued that to benefit society, high-quality education should focus on developing students’ critical thinking and moral compass.
Every year, millions of American students are told that King’s hope has come to fruition, and their own technically desegregated classrooms are held up as evidence. This is a lie, one that feels good and makes some sense if you consider that it is predicated on the mid-20th-century image of segregation. Our children are shown pictures of 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford facing the National Guard in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 and of U.S. marshals in New Orleans escorting 6-year-old Ruby Bridges to school in 1960. They learn that this, and only this, is what injustice looks like. The absence of de jure segregation, of furious mobs spitting and screaming at the front door, is heralded as the true test of justice—a low, low bar.
But even by this standard, we aren’t doing all that well. Public-school segregation has grown worse in the South, where black students’ access to majority-white schools has declined since the late 1980s. Across the country, white students are the likeliest to attend schools with classmates mostly of the same race. This point is omitted in many conversations about segregation, but racial injustice doesn’t just mean black and Latino students languishing in struggling schools. It also means white students’ parents engaging in what the sociologist Charles Tilly has called “opportunity hoarding” and actively separating their sons and daughters from children of color.
Worse, it has also become clear that “integrated” schools are failing us if we assess them based on the way King envisioned equality in the broader social landscape. He offered us a blueprint for this grander vision in a 1967 address at an Atlanta YMCA (see “Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World”), in which he argued that the fight for civil rights in America must shift from a “struggle for decency” toward what he called “genuine equality.” And genuine equality, King warned, would be costly. It would require the government to spend many billions of dollars to abolish poverty and provide high-quality education while tolerating an inevitable backlash from white Americans.
This morally ambitious King understood white supremacy as a system that had prevailed in every aspect of our nation’s social life, history, and legislative and judicial practice, and he envisioned the dismantling of that system. He did not simply take sides on policy prescriptions that would lead only to superficial solutions; he imagined a country in which black people could enjoy the full benefits of citizenship and human potential. If the legacy of this King is our measuring stick, we have failed.
This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “Still Separate and Unequal.”