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Honouring Dr. King

In Windsor, in education, and in historic narrative

by Lila Iriburiro Happy

The peaceful legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been celebrated each year, since 1986, on the third Monday in the month of January. To truly honour Dr. King, learning who he was, what and how he contributed to peacebuilding- beyond the limited information shared prior, is fundamental. A Canadian perspective resonating closer to home achieves this purpose better. Thus, exploring his connection to Windsor-Essex provides unique insight. Synchronously, this piece establishes common ground between students and the celebrated humanitarian, with the guiding question premised upon his educational journey, by inquiring “what kind of student was MLK?”

An exceptional leader, activist, and the designated face of the Civil Rights Movement is the collective memory that most people have of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Yet not many people know nor appreciate his early life which is nevertheless remarkable. Born Michael Luther King Jr., on January 15th, 1929, his name would later be changed to Martin after his namesake father was inspired by theologian Martin Luther on a trip to Germany. His mother was Alberta Williams King, an educator by profession and leader in the International League for Peace and Freedom. His father was Martin Luther King Sr., a prominent leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Together the Kings had three children, their eldest daughter Willie Christine King, their first son Martin Luther King Jr., and their youngest son Alfred Daniel Williams King.

His sister, Christine, is distinguished as Spelman's longest-serving faculty member for 56 years as a professor in the Department of Education and serving as the director of the Learning Resources Center. Before that, she completed three degrees, her B.A. in Economics from Spelman in 1948 and then at Columbia University she achieved her first M.A. in the social foundations of education in 1949, followed by her second M.A. in special education in 1950. His brother, A. D., significantly contributed to civil rights through his active leadership in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Poor People’s Campaign. A. D. was a Morehouse College graduate- like the men in his family, a good preacher, and father to five children. 

At the age of 5, MLK stood out as a gifted child who could already read before attending school, thanks to his mom. Although admitted at an earlier age, MLK was asked to return to school once he had turned the 6, the required age at the Yonge Street Elementary School in Atlanta. Segregated schools were fertile grounds for exposure to racism, which MLK experiences as early as three years old. His childhood best friend was his neighbour, a white boy, who he would play with every day. Forced to stop their friendship by his best friend’s father, MLK then became aware of racial inequality. The crucial lesson from this anecdote is the illustration that racism is learned. Consistent with research from the American Psychological Association, Dr.  Farzana Tabitha Saleem explains, “racism is learned early on in development, and children receive many messages about race and racism from a young age.” To begin to unlearn racism to hopefully dismantle it altogether, we must become anti-racist, as author Ibram X. Kendi advocates in his book How to Be an Antiracist.

An extraordinary fact is how Martin Luther King Jr. skipped not one but indeed two grades- that is Grade 9 and his senior year. With an admission into Morehouse College, the alma mater of his grandfather and father, MLK commenced his post-secondary education at the early age of 15. His first B. A was in Sociology, graduating in 1948. MLK took particular interest in the essay on “Civil Disobedience” by philosopher Henry David Thoreau, which would later inform his own philosophy on nonviolence protests, demonstrated from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, MLK achieved his second B. A. in 1951. Marking his first experience at an integrated school, MLK accomplished many milestones including being voted as president in a predominately white institution and graduating as valedictorian. There were still difficulties, as most students and scholars in academia can understand, and this applies to MLK as well. In seminary school, MLK got a ‘C’ in public speaking of all subjects. A valuable lesson to remember is that our grades do not define our potential. Crozer is where MLK learned about a leader he admired, Mahatma Gandhi. Then, in 1955, MLK continued to achieve his Ph.D. degree in Systemic Theology at Boston University. In a letter to his mom, Dr. King shared meeting a talented lady enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music, Coretta Scott, who he would fall in love with and marry.

Windsor Proud, as we say at the University of Windsor, highlights the distinct qualities of our campus and city. Upon discovery that our very own city of Windsor has hosted one of the most celebrated leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., remains a proud moment. As a well-travelled man, the first place he visited in Canada was Windsor, Ontario. In August of 1956, at age 27, Dr. King was invited to speak at the Emancipation Day Celebrations hosted in Jackson Park. A grand total of 200,000 people from all socio-economic backgrounds would congregate, including United Nations diplomat Eleanor Roosevelt. This speaks volumes to the monumental “I Have A Dream” speech that Dr. King delivered on August 28th, 1963 wherein he hopes for “a nation where they [his children] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” August 1st, Emancipation Day, marks the official acknowledgment of enslavement history in Canada while upholding the intrinsic human rights outlined in the 1833 Abolition Act. During Canada’s centennial anniversary in 1967, Dr. King would return to Canada in Toronto to deliver the Massey Lecture at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

From the positionality of an international student, a peculiar phenomenon that I amongst many more experience is the shift in external perception from being African to now racialized as Black. In light of my on-campus work with the Initiatives Against Anti-Black Racism at the Vice-President’s Office Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the realization that dawned on me is that the United States of America does not hold a monopoly over Black history. Often, the history and narratives of Black people is predominately told from the US perspective, which consequently creates the silencing of poignant histories such as Apartheid in South Africa. Another result is ignorance and denial of racism. The latter is enabled by using the US as a global measurement tool for determining racism. Praised as the ‘North Star’ in most racial rhetoric, Dr. King concurred with “Heaven was the word for Canada.” Nevertheless, Canada is still culpable of unfounded racial innocence ideology. Although enslaved African Americans escaped to Canada seeking freedom, this alone does not mend the systemic racism in the past and present. Therefore, decolonizing historic narratives and the education system is paramount to honour Black people and the transgenerational work of Dr. King.