Justice and Equality are Topics for Every Course

So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? -Martin Luther King Jr, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”

Honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is not just the job of history teachers. It is incumbent on us all to send our students forth as a force for good. His messages of justice and equality are not to be contained in the past, but are relevant and necessary today no matter what profession or area of study, no matter what unit.

I challenge you to infuse your lessons this week with themes and messages from Martin Luther King’s life, such as: justice, nonviolence (nonviolent direct action), compassion, understanding, and equality (racial and economic).

Below, you can find ideas for each subject area. These are by no means exhaustive — you’ll need to tweak ideas for your own grade levels and content, but hopefully this will give you a jumping off point.

Science and Math

With a math or science course, you have some interesting possibilities for bringing these messages or the message of MLK’s legacy into the classroom. For example, you can look at how racial tensions have evolved from a biological standpoint, or consider how geography/geology have impacted racial relationships. You could use advanced mathematics to find a formula for the arc of the moral universe — can we predict when or how it bends toward justice? You could consider what role ethics, equality, or justice play in scientific professions. Does the scientist have an ethical obligation? Or is science outside of ethics and justice?

  • Where do different races come from?
    In a course about biology and evolution, ask students to consider what part biology plays in racial tensions. What makes us different from each other? What makes us fear one another? Are there biological differences or are differences mainly cultural? How did different races evolve?
  • How long is the moral arc and does it bend toward justice?
    Is there a way to quantify whether an event moves us closer to justice or injustice?
  • Calculate the economic impact of poverty.
    Dr. King focused on the impacts of poverty. Have students calculate the lifetime impact of getting paid less. What is the impact on a neighborhood or city if a significant number of residents makes below poverty wages? What are the social consequences of that economic reality?
  • Does a scientist have an ethical obligation?
    Dr. King asks us if we will be extremists for hate or for love. In what ways do scientific advancements or conclusions have a moral or subjective influence? Does being a scientist put you outside the concerns of justice or is there a moral responsibility as a scientist?
  • What is reasonable force?
    Consider the different ways that police and protesters have clashed (both during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and more recent events). What kinds of force are used? What is the force of the water hoses?

World Languages

World Language classes provide an opportunity to consider Civil Rights from a different cultural perspective.

  • What Civil Rights movements have or are occurring in countries that speak the language you teach?
  • Read one of Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches in a foreign language (or have students translate it). How does the meaning change or differ? Do different insights arise when it is read in a different language?
  • Have a conversation about MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, or current Civil Rights issues in a foreign language.

ELA

In an English Language Arts class, there are all kinds of potential readings, discussions, and writing exercises to consider. Given Martin Luther King Jr.’s incredible mastery of the English language, a great place to start is his writings. “I have a Dream” is, I think, easier for younger students, whereas “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” is good for older students as many of them likely haven’t read it. Things to discuss:

  • Sentences or imagery that stands out
  • Sentences that are complex or make references students don’t understand
  • The most important message in the speech
  • How his writings compare to other authors you’ve read this year. What’s similar or different in the styles?
  • Which messages seem relevant today and which messages seem outdated?

History and Social Studies

Obviously a history class is a great time to discuss MLK Jr. But I would caution against taking this week as a chance to look at the Civil Rights era in isolation. Instead, help students connect the events of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life into a larger narrative. For example:

  • In studying details of MLK’s life, help students consider the the time preceding it. Why now? Why did the Civil Rights Movement gain momentum then? Why didn’t it happen earlier or later? What pushed people to a boiling point where they felt compelled to act?
  • In studying the history of a different part of the world, ask student to consider what Civil Rights Movements were important to those regions. Or, what events were happening in those regions when the Civil Rights Movement took shape in the US? Do these movements in different parts of the world impact each other? Are the messages of Dr. King relevant to other countries or are those messages unique to the American people?
  • In studying the outcomes of the Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s, consider what lasting impacts they have (or haven’t) had.
  • In studying recent history or current events, ask students what relevance MLK’s words and actions have.

As you plan for next week, challenge yourself to incorporate the words, messages, and questions of Martin Luther King Jr. into your lessons. You don’t have to be a history teacher to ask students to consider the relevance of justice, equality, and nonviolence. Get more ideas from this Deck.