2013: A Year to Look Back and Forward: Reflecting upon Civil Rights Milestone Anniversaries

Article excerpt

The year 1963 marked a climactic moment in the history of the African-American freedom struggle. By this time, the movement had expanded beyond its Southern-based origins to include greater numbers and bolder acts of nonviolent protest among a diverse group of the nation's citizens. On August 28, more than 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to demonstrate for freedom, jobs and equality. It was here that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his landmark address, "I Have a Dream;' which, among other factors, propelled the movement to national and international prominence. Four months earlier, while incarcerated for participation in nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, Ala., King penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

The 50th anniversaries of the March on Washington, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and other milestones of 1963 present a unique opportunity to re-engage the life and thought of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement for civil and human rights. Educators will find many teachable moments in this important history of one of the most compelling social justice movements of the twentieth century. Perhaps no other period in modern American history is more deeply connected to our present-day lives than the decades of the '50s and '60s. While this is true, civil rights history is far too often a neglected subject in our nation's colleges and schools. The teachings and philosophy of King remain highly relevant today and serve as a valuable resource for future generations.

While King would likely be deeply moved by the recent re-election of the nation's first African-American president, he would challenge all of us to continue to work toward a nation that guarantees better jobs, decent housing, health care, higher wages and a quality education for all of its citizens, tie would be especially concerned about the present state of escalating violence in our culture and would advocate the serious study and practice of nonviolence. King's 1957 address on the "Power of Nonviolence" is a good starting point for understanding this approach.

Perhaps one of King's greatest legacies is his sharp critique of systems of oppression and prescriptive practice of nonviolent civil disobedience. King delivered hundreds of sermons and speeches during his short lifetime, prophetically calling on us to consider that "we still have a choice today: nonviolent co-existence or violent co-annihilation. …