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MLK Birthday Speech in Atlanta

Secretary Duncan Calls Education the "Civil Rights Issue of Our Generation"

January 22, 2010

In a recent speech to more than a thousand elementary, high school and college students who gathered to celebrate the 81st birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged America to realize King's vision through education.

Calling education the “civil rights issue of our generation,” Duncan said, “Freedom is the ability to think and to pursue your own path—and only education can give you that freedom.”

“If Dr. King were here today, he would call on a new generation of leaders to build on his work by doing the most important thing each of you can do: get an education, learn to think, learn to compete, and learn to win,” Duncan said.

The event was at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Dr. King and his father served as pastors. The event was sponsored by the National Action Network.  Reverend Al Sharpton joined Duncan along with students from area public schools, Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, and Clark-Atlanta University.

Duncan also highlighted the work of the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces civil rights laws on behalf of school children with disabilities, and protects against gender and racial discrimination.  The Office also provides technical assistance to school districts seeking to promote educational equity.

“In recent years, this office has not been as aggressive as it should be. But that's about to change,” Duncan said.  This year, for example, the Office of Civil Rights will broaden its data collection process to highlight inequity around issues such as student discipline, distribution of effective teachers, and access to rigorous curriculum.  This information will help shape the administration's education equity agenda.

In his remarks, Duncan referenced King's urgent appeal back in 1963, in the form of an open letter written by King in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. King observed that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Duncan said “We can't wait five or 10 more years to transform struggling schools.  We need to act now and we need to act together.  Dr. King showed us the path — and he gave us the vision. Now it's our job to make it real.”

(For Department of Education resources for teachers relating to Martin Luther King, Jr., click here.).

Source:  Department of Education.