A divided america needs Dr. King’s unifying social justice principles

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Anthony Jones and Matthew Daniels, Opinion contributors
·4 min read
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The destructive chaos in our nation’s capital is another warning that America is moving down a road of divisiveness and violence.

In 2020 Americans endured a global health pandemic, a costly economic shutdown, multiple foreign policy crises, a bitter presidential election, and angry political differences that split communities, friends, and even families. Many people complain that we never have been so divided.

The classrooms of America are the best place to begin healing our nation. Unfortunately, as is true in society generally, there are forces in American education working to promote politicized ideologies that will continue to polarize and divide our country.

Looking to our own history for guidance

As educators, we’ve talked to teachers and school administrators who confess to being in a state of “conscious incompetence” when it comes to speaking about issues of social justice. There are far too many such Americans of good will — both school officials and parents — who have been silenced for fear that they will be criticized or even attacked.

Yet America has come through other difficult times. Finding answers to today’s deep-seated problems may not be easy, but we can look to the best of our own history for guidance.

In particular, we should return to Dr. King’s inspired principles for advancing social justice through nonviolence rooted in compassion. These principles should be included in the curriculum for today’s students, starting in elementary school.

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960, in Atlanta.
Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960, in Atlanta.

The deeply unifying principle at the core of his teaching was respect for the dignity of the human person — every person, irrespective of race. This vision animated both the substance of his message and the means he employed.

Moreover, in the half century since Dr. King gave his life for the case of justice and equality, social science research has extensively validated the efficacy of Dr. King’s commitment to pursuing social justice through non-violence. This history had a profound impact on all Americans but is largely unknown or unappreciated by many young people today.

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For all of these reasons, we felt as educators the need to launch a national initiative to teach Dr. King’s non-violent social justice principles to a new generation of students. Our first step was interview civil rights pioneers like Ambassador Young whose life and work embody those non-violent principles that are an essential foundation for productive citizenship in a democratic society. We then developed curricula for both primary and high school students that are being introduced in public and private schools in a half dozen states, including Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas.

Teaching the right principles to lead our nation out of darkness

Both curricula challenge students to dream how they can harness the power of digital media to be ambassadors for Dr. King’s principles in the digital age. Using digital tools to promote Dr. King’s principles helps to redeem a medium which has also been used for ill by extremists ranging from racist hatemongers to ISIS recruiters.

Our nation faces extraordinary challenges. The issues transcend any one politician, party, or election. This is why we need educational initiatives that bring America together rather than curricula that promote divisive, politicized ideologies.

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Despite the gravity of the problems of our day, solutions are available. One place to look for answers is the Civil Rights era, when America took a major step forward in extending its promise of liberty and justice. This success owed much to Dr. King’s insistence on non-violence, practiced by so many others of courage.

Let us teach these principles today to those who will lead America tomorrow. The heroes of the future already have been born. Our job is to prepare them to lead us out of a world of growing darkness into one of greater light for all.

Anthony Jones is the associate provost & assistant vice president of Enrollment Management at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Matthew Daniels is the Founder of Good of All, an international human rights education organization (www.universalrights.org)

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Applying peaceful social justice principles in today's world