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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the decline in what younger generations know about him

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“They don’t know what organization he founded, they don’t know key lines of his speeches, they don’t know when he was killed,” she says. “I’m embarrassed and disappointed by this.”

Interviews with educators show Cannick’s observation to be essentially true, but tricky to tease out from other, bigger trends – such as the passing on of other cultural knowledge – and hard to generalize beyond specific cities.

“There is a confluence of trends that explain why there is so little knowledge among young African Americans concerning the legacy and historic contribution of MLK,” says Charles A. Gallagher, professor of sociology at LaSalle University in an email. He says in the black neighborhoods of many large cities, the drop-out rate approaches 50 percent.

“The schooling on this topic is not there. It is also the case that there is the perception that the large issues that King addressed – voting rights, labor market discrimination, and Jim Crow laws – have been addressed,” he says. “What we are seeing is the shift in norms where what was once a struggle is now taken for granted. I would say that the lack of knowledge of MLK is akin to the perception that the NAACP is no longer relevant to young African Americans. Having Barack Obama in the White House is viewed by many that the struggles for equality have been achieved.”

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