Leaving a Legacy: Character Lessons from Dr. King


Written By: Erin Jones

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Martin Luther King, Jr.,"I Have A Dream" speech, Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.

Everyone in the United States and likely most people around the world have heard this speech. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a federal holiday to honor the birth of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, often recognized as the chief spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. We celebrate this holiday every January. All public institutions have a day off on January 21st. Most public schools have assemblies and other special events the week before or after to honor Dr. King for his sacrifices and promotion of nonviolent protest.

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After serving in schools for over 25 years now, my experience has been that most students believe MLK Day is just about Black people. Most students (and often educators) are only familiar with the “I Have a Dream” speech and the fact that King was assassinated. Although this speech was pivotal in propelling King to national and international recognition, Dr. King cared about more than just the rights of Black people. He also spoke out against the Vietnam War and initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement that hoped to compel the government to do more to help the poor get jobs, health care, and decent housing.

In the last 10 years, I have had the opportunity to speak in over 100 MLK assemblies. I see each one as an opportunity to promote the character required to live a life of consequence, to challenge young people to believe their actions and words matter, that they, too, can make a significant difference in the world. They don’t need to have a title. They don’t need to be adults. They don’t need to take on a big cause like the Civil Rights Movement. They just need to be willing to stand for something bigger than themselves and to believe their words matter.

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I challenge young people to start small. Do something as simple as sitting with a student who is eating lunch alone or be intentional about telling a classmate you like their new hair color or earrings. Say “please” and “thank you” to the students and adults who help you or take an action that benefits you. Then move into something requiring greater responsibility - start a food or clothing bank at your school and be on the lookout for ways to support students who are in need. Learn to say “hello”, “how are you”, “thank you” in the language of a student who is a recent immigrant or an exchange student.

In a speech to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia in 1967, Martin Luther King said, “Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”

Great character does not require doing the big things that lead to having a national holiday in your name. Great character is how you choose to live in the “regular” moments, how you choose to treat others around you when you are not in the spotlight. 20 or 30 years after your death, how will people remember you? That is character.


About the Author:
Erin Jones has been involved in and around schools for the past 26 years. She has taught in a variety of environments, from predominantly Black to predominantly White to some of the most diverse communities in the nation. Erin received an award as the Most Innovative Foreign Language Teacher in 2007, while working in Tacoma and was the Washington State Milken Educator of the Year in 2008 while teaching in Spokane. She received recognition at the White House in March of 2013 as a “Champion of Change” and was Washington State PTA’s “Outstanding Educator” in 2015. After serving as a classroom teacher and instructional coach, Erin worked as an executive for two State Superintendents. Erin left the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2012 to work in college-access at the school district level. She left her job to run as a candidate for State Superintendent and was the first Black woman to run for any state office in Washington state, a race she lost by a mere 1%. She and her husband of 25 years have a daughter who recently graduated from Central Washington University, a son who is a senior at Harvey Mudd College and one who coaches high school football with husband, James, who is a high school teacher in the North Thurston School District.