On Monday, Americans commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of us know at least a little something about the man: he was an African American civil rights leader; he gave the “I Have a Dream” speech; he was assassinated for his efforts … and we get a day off in his honor. For most American youth, though, knowledge about Dr. King — and understanding of civil rights history overall — doesn’t go too far beyond that. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, for instance, reported that only 2 percent of high school seniors could correctly answer a basic question about the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)  examined public K-12 education standards and curriculum requirements in every state in the nation, and found that 35 states – including California – failed to cover many of the core concepts and details about the Civil Rights Movement. 16 of these states (Iowa and New Hampshire included) didn’t require any instruction about the movement at all.

“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said Maureen Costello, director of SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program, which conducted the study.  “By having weak or non-existent standards for history, particularly for the Civil Rights Movement, (most states) are saying loud and clear that it isn’t something students need to learn.”

The study also found that much of what is taught about the movement in schools largely focuses on addressing the major leaders and events, but fails to address the systemic and often persistent issues like racism and economic injustice.

Throughout the country, Dr. King is honored as a national hero. Major city boulevards bear his name, and two years ago a memorial on the National Mall in Washington was unveiled. But if Dr. King’s teachings aren’t passed on to younger generations, the report notes, then all these tributes fall short of maintaining his legacy.

How Much Do You Really Know About MLK? (Take the quiz!) 22 May,2015Matthew Green


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor