At 15, an age when many students today are pursuing their temporary driver's licenses and playing junior varsity sports, Martin Luther King Jr. began his college career at Morehouse College in Atlanta. After four years at Morehouse, a historically black, men's college, King earned his bachelor's degree in sociology and learned much from the influential speakers who came to the school's weekly chapel services, says Vicki Crawford, director of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection of archives.
Today, Crawford and the Morehouse community spend nearly all of January celebrating their most famous alumnus. The college hosts panel discussions and forums, theatrical and musical performances, a film screening, multi-faith worship service, and day of outreach, as well as in-class teaching about King.
"What we're trying to do is provide some opportunity for historical understanding, and also an opportunity to get [students] to contextualize some of what they see in their everyday world," says Crawford.
One of these opportunities is the King Collection's annual essay contest, which is open to college and high school students around the world. Crawford says some of those essay responses have shown her that students are really thinking about how King's teachings are relevant today. She also hears this affirmation in the college's King's Scholars program.
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"Just sitting in on some of those discussions, I can tell you that [students] really do want to learn about history," Crawford says. "Their memory is not very long, but it's our responsibility to sort of introduce these ideas, and they can take it from there."
At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, students are also encouraged to apply King's historic lessons to the world today.
"I think the classic story is, 'Black folks were slaves, and Martin Luther King came and advocated nonviolence, and now everybody's free because the laws are changed.' But there's a complicated set of historical intersections," says Nina Johnson, visiting assistant professor of Black Studies at Swarthmore. She says she asks her students, "How can we think about what intersection we're at right now?"
To give her students hands-on experience, Johnson took some of her students to Occupy Philadelphia, where she challenged them to think about strategies developed by leaders such as King and apply them to issues relevant to themselves or their lives, such as graduating into a rough economy.
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As some students learn from protests in Philadelphia, others practice their speaking skills in Los Angeles County, at Whittier College. Isaiah Sneed of Whittier and Cole Deleon-Jones of University of San Francisco didn't compete in the 2011 oratorical contest, which is part of Whittier's annual King celebration, but performed as the rap duo Brothers From Another. The two students, who come from different racial backgrounds, channeled King's teachings that day.
"The song we performed that day has a lot to do with … going after your dreams," says Sneed. "It sounds really cliché, but in reality, it's hard to go after something that you really want to do."
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To celebrate Martin Luther King Day this year, on January 16, Sneed will rap once more at the oratorical contest. And even if students elsewhere don't have Martin Luther King contests and celebrations at their schools, Crawford at Morehouse and Johnson at Swarthmore say those students can best reflect on the leader's teachings through volunteering.
"Students, wherever they live, should take the initiative to go out and to be part of some kind of service project because that's what it's all about," says Crawford. "It's about: How can we serve? How can we make a better world? How can we get us out of ourselves and help others?"
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And, Johnson points out, helping others is something that everybody can do.