- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

April 4, 1968, is a dark day in American history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was on a mission of peace in Memphis. As evening fell, evil descended on the city. An assassin’s gun ended the short life of a peaceful man.

During his life, Dr. King ministered not only to his church congregation but a nation hurt by the evils of segregation. His courage was unequaled in the Civil Rights era.

A true leader, Dr. King never saw violence as a way to end segregation. The segregationists in many states used threats and acts of violence to stop Dr. King. It didn’t work. Since 1983, Americans have celebrated the life and everlasting spirit of a Baptist minister who, in 1968, marched into Glory.

Through the marches, rallies, church gatherings and boycotts, Dr. King remained dedicated to freedom’s cause. He never let fear or danger hinder him.

Dr. King’s historic role was educating American blacks about their basic constitutional rights. He also educated poor whites that they had nothing to fear from an empowered black population. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and … critically. … Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education,” Dr. King once said. He recognized the importance of education in effecting justice.

During segregation, Southern school systems were inferior and produced poorly educated black students. Poor whites suffered as well. Privileged whites dominated higher education and, as a result, the highest-paying jobs.

To get a better education, blacks migrated to more favorable metropolitan areas, like Washington and New York, and improved their lives with education.

Over the years, Washington allocated more federal education dollars to Northern state school systems. Today, Southern school systems are doing a better job educating all their citizens, but considerable work remains to be done.

For me, Dr. King’s most important message was about education. When he faced down segregation, education improved for all Southerners. Thanks to Dr. King, educators and politicians in the South paid more attention to improving the region’s public education. I know this because I attended segregated grammar schools and, later, an integrated high school. Black and white teachers, slowly at first, worked together to meet the needs of all students.

In the 1970s, integration was controversial, especially with whites. They called it “social experimenting.” They said education would suffer and mixing races would destabilize a civilized society. They were wrong. Integration worked and is working today. Society is more civilized than it was in the era of segregation.

Still, in the South during the 1970s, there was growth in private white-only schools. Family and friends with children in such schools think they get a better education than at a public school. They are wrong. Students in these academies are denied the opportunity to learn in a diverse public school system. Diversity is not just a buzzword but an important fact of life. Social diversity will only increase in the coming years and kids need to be prepared for it.

Private schools without diverse student populations are as inferior today as segregated schools were in the 1960s. Diverse, or multicultural, school systems provide students an education superior to that of whites-only academies.

Of course, diversity education has critics. They say it’s too expensive to “experiment” (that word again) with education. Segregation carried a far higher cost and also had its critics. Dr. King was segregation’s biggest, most fervent critic. He went to war over it, and segregation lost.

Dr. King’s educational message is built into the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday. Although it is a day off from work and school, celebrations center on libraries, schools and churches. It is a day to learn of his accomplishments on behalf of all people. We have a more just society, thanks to Dr. King.

One day is a good start, but we must resolve on Martin Luther King Day to be lifelong learners and diversity advocates. We must also resolve on this day to become active participants in our diverse society. Working and learning alongside each other we can make Dr. King’s dream of a free and inclusive society a reality.

JAMES PATTERSON

A Washington, D.C.-based writer and former Foreign Service officer and a product of Alabama’s segregated school system, Mr. Patterson writes often on the Civil Rights era.

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