The Content of Their Character

Today we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and it seemed a good time to reflect on words he said that inspired much of the nation to push toward equality for all people, regardless of their circumstances, outward appearance, social standing, cultural heritage, and so forth.  He died too soon, of course (he was 39 years old), and probably could have made much more progress had he lived.  If I were a social studies teacher, I might come up with an assignment that asks, “What would MLK have done if he were alive on April 5, 1968?

[pullquote]I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[/pullquote]As an English teacher, I’m focused on words.  His most famous speech is the “I Have a Dream” speech, the text of which you can find here.  Imagine my surprise when I heard from my students that they were heartily sick of this speech, as much as they were sick of the Gettysburg Address.  For them, the dream remains unfulfilled.  Sure, they say, they aren’t outwardly discriminated against.  They don’t have to use separate bathrooms and water fountains.  They don’t have to ride in the back of the bus.  They can go to school with white children.  They can even have relationships with whomever they choose.  Yet, the dream remains unfulfilled, they say.  Outwardly, they are not discriminated against, but there is still that hostility among white people that they feel, that instinctive habit among them to judge them “by the color of their skin,” not “by the content of their character.”

I found that interesting and disheartening at the same time.  In graduate school, we went through an exercise that exposed our prejudices.  For many of us, it was a dismaying experience.  We never realized that we held prejudices against certain cultural or ethnic groups.  It was the first step toward eliminating those prejudices.  Many of us were going into urban education; we needed to get rid of those “demons,” or it would hamper our ability to be effective -not just as teachers, but as human beings.  Having grown up in an urban environment myself, I had already done a lot of work to exorcise those demons.  Did my students still feel that I judged them on the basis of their outward appearance?

Fortunately, they said they did not. They said they never would have admitted to being sick of the speech if they thought for a minute that I was harboring that hostility.

The conversation ended with me saying, “I don’t really care what you look like.  I care about how you act toward others, about your work ethic, and about your progress as a person.”  In other words, I truly care about the content of their character.  What makes the “I Have a Dream” speech so powerful today is that it still resonates with many and it generates conversations such as the one I had with my students, even if that conversation was “rocky” at the start.  In the end, it brought us to a new place.  It’s a conversation I will never forget.

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