Flickr: Mike Licht, Library of Congress

By Matthew Green

Today, Americans commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of us know at least a little something about the historic figure: He was an African American civil rights leader; he delivered the unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech; he was assassinated in 1968.

For most American youth, though, knowledge about Dr. King and civil rights history in general doesn’t go much beyond 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, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

What’s more, 35 states – including California – failed to cover many of the core concepts and details about the Civil Rights Movement, and 16 of these states (Iowa and New Hampshire included) didn’t require any instruction about the movement at all, according to a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which examined public K-12 education standards and curriculum requirements in all 50 states and found that

“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 last year a memorial on the National Mall in Washington was dedicated to him. But these symbolic tributes, notes the SPLC report, are not enough on their own, if the lessons and significance of Dr. King’s legacy aren’t passed on.

Now it’s your turn. Test your own knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s life and accomplishments here.










From KQED’s How’d We Get Here blog.
  • Kevin Brady

    hmmm … ever seen Guido Sarducci’s 5 Minute College Education?

  • Estrella

    I enjoyed the MLK Test – got 80%.  One year my first graders who were mostly AsianAmericans participated in an assembly celebrating Black History.  We told the story of the Little Rock Nine – which is about black students who first integrated an all-white school.  We said each of their names and showed their pictures on big signs.  Then the students sang “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone.  I hope the students who performed and saw it will remember it for a long time.

  • Smitha3

    It seems we still have a long way to go as far as teaching history beyond heros and holidays!  Although I knew all the correct answers, it was not until I became an educator my self that I began to search for more information about the civil rights movement.  In addition to Estrella, I try to inform my second graders about the important role women and children had in the civil rights movement.  Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa also offers a look into the women behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  It is important to remind students that a movement and change is made when a group of people work together to fight for their rights, and change is not brought about by a single person.  Thanks for the assembly idea!

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