Cross-curricular resources: Martin Luther King Day

6th January 2012 at 00:00
Martin Luther King Day isn't just for history lessons. It's also a spur for a debate about civil rights, says Colin Hynson
  • Martin Luther King Day, 16 January
    • Around the world, the struggle for civil rights goes on. We have watched the Arab Spring emerge, with people demanding rights that we in the West take for granted, and the fight against repression in Burma is starting to bear fruit. But even in Europe, where civil rights are enshrined in law, the fight to hold on to them continues.

      In London, the camp at St Paul's Cathedral has become part of the worldwide "Occupy" movement. Protesters use the non-violent language and techniques of the civil rights movement but, like others in similar campaigns, they have been both condemned and misunderstood; several of the Occupy camps in the United States have been broken up by the police. Yet this movement can be a good starting point for a discussion about the "rights" the protesters are fighting for, and whether their techniques are the right ones.

      As Martin Luther King Day approaches, it is a good time to reflect on one of the most powerful civil rights movements in modern history, led by a man who was prepared to die for his beliefs but never to kill for them. What would he have made of the Occupy movement? Or the disorder seen throughout British cities last August?

      From the early 1950s to the mid-1960s African-Americans fought for their civil rights, led by Dr Martin Luther King, whose championing of non- violent direct action has served as an inspiration for civil rights movements around the world.

      After the abolition of slavery in 1865, black Americans struggled to place themselves on equal terms with white Americans. States in the South made it legal to separate black and white people in public facilities like schools and restaurants; some states even denied black people the vote. Despite a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (founded in 1909) and a 1954 Supreme Court proclamation that segregation was illegal, it continued throughout the South until a new civil rights movement emerged to take up the fight.

      The catalyst came on 1 December 1955, when Rosa Parks rode on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to move from a seat allocated to white people. When she was arrested, a young minister called Martin Luther King organised a local boycott of the bus company. Thousands of people took part and it was such an effective protest that segregation on buses in Montgomery came to an end a year later.

      Twelve months on, at Little Rock in Arkansas, nine black students tried to enrol at an all-white school and the state governor sent in local troops to block them. But just over a year later all the schools in Arkansas were integrated.

      Protests against segregation subsequently fanned out across the southern states. By the end of the 1960s more than 70,000 people had taken part, all of whom were non-violent, even when violence was used against them by the police or by white opponents. In 1961, 13 volunteers (seven black and six white) known as the "Freedom Riders" drove two buses to challenge segregation in bus stations. They were attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan, badly beaten and left undefended by local police. But the protesters' peaceful persistence led to victory when the US government banned segregated buses across the country.

      By this time Martin Luther King had emerged as the unofficial leader of the civil rights movement. He arrived in Albany, Georgia, to co-ordinate protests against segregation, which ended in July 1962 when demonstrators turned to violence and threw bricks and bottles at police. King called for a "Day of Penance" to promote non-violence. But it took protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963 for King and the civil rights movement to regain the moral high ground. When King was arrested at a sit-in, more than 1,000 children aged between six and 18 marched through the city. The next day they were greeted by police dogs and water cannons. Pictures of children being attacked by the police were beamed around the world. The protesters finally triumphed when US president John F Kennedy, well aware of the potential international damage, warned the city that he would send in thousands of troops if they did not desegregate.

      But it was a march in August 1963 that brought King global attention. More than 200,000 black and white people marched to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC demanding segregation finally be made illegal throughout the whole country. It was here that King gave his now famous "I have a dream" speech. The protest led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed all segregation as well as bringing in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Three years later, at a rally in Memphis, Tennessee, King talked of his own death during a speech. The next day he was shot dead by James Earl Ray.

      In the United States, schools mark Martin Luther King Day by studying his legacy. But this could also be an opportunity for schools in this country to look at the impact of his life and the wider issue of civil rights. Discussions could start with a definition of civil rights: what they are, what they mean and what justification there is for peaceful and even violent protests. Key stage 3 and 4 pupils could be urged to think about causes they consider worth fighting for - in their own lives and in the defence of others.

      Colin Hynson is an educational writer and consultant. He has written more than 30 textbooks for children, including "The Civil Rights Movement"

      What else?



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