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On Leadership: Dr. Martin Luther King, Teaching, and Alpha Phi Alpha
We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the pressing urgencies of the great cause of freedom…..a time like this demands great leaders. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King spoke these words in 1956 at the 50th Anniversary celebration of Alpha Phi Alpha—the oldest black fraternity in this country. He was an Alpha himself, and he so embodied the fraternity’s mission of leadership, academic excellence, service, and advocacy that he won the Alpha Award of Honor that night.
Today, as we reflect on Dr. King’s life and work, we’re taking heed of the call to leadership he made so many years ago. In this moment, we still need “leaders in love with justice…in love with humanity,” who can devote their immense talent and passion to the greatest problems of our time.
As the CEOs of the United Negro College Fund and Teach For America, we’re proud to have so many phenomenal leaders in our communities. We’re also proud to partner with Alpha Phi Alpha, where generations of young black men have developed their own leadership in service of a better world, to encourage more young men to consider joining the fight for educational equity.
Powerful leaders have been answering King’s call to leadership for many years, and the issues we face are broad and systemic. But we’re calling for young people—of all races, from all backgrounds and walks of life—to step up and join the fight for educational equity and excellence. Despite the hard work of many, our nation faces the grave injustice of educational inequity. We face a grave injustice when 1 in 4 black students attend a high school where graduating is not the norm, compared with 1 in 20 white students. We face a grave injustice when in nine states last year, not a single black student took the AP Computer Science Exam—and make no mistake, that’s not for lack of interest—it’s a lack of opportunity.
We need folks fighting in all fields to increase that opportunity. We believe that teaching is one of the greatest acts of leadership a person can take on, and that great teachers come from all backgrounds. We’re making a particular call for black men, who currently compose just 2% of our nation’s teaching force, because we know that teachers who share the background of their students can have a profound additional impact in their classes.
In his speech to the Alphas, Dr. King also said this:
Whatever you are doing, consider it as something having cosmic significance, as it is a part of the uplifting of humanity.
The fight to provide an excellent education for all children does just that. It uplifts humanity, and we want to encourage as many future leaders from all backgrounds in our great nation to respond to the charge to lead. Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is a moment to consider how we make the world a better place.
What we know is that wherever you work, whatever you do, fighting to ensure all young people have the chance to grow into those leaders, is critical to uplifting humanity. Together, alongside so many others, we’re trying to build a world that Dr. King would be proud of. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer each day and we won’t give up the fight.