The Content of Their Character: King’s Theme Across the Years

Martin Luther King would have been 91 years old on January 15, 2020, had an assassin’s bullet not cut short his promising life at 39 years of age. Born in segregated Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, King’s family, church, and teachers nourished the precocious Michael King, which was his birth name until his father changed it to “Martin Luther” after a visit to Germany in 1934.

At the age of 15, King delivered his first public address, titled “The Negro and the Constitution,” at a statewide oratorical contest held at the First African Baptist Church in Dublin, Georgia. From there, he matured into a modern-day articulator of the Christian gospel of love. With his actions and ideas over the next 24 years, King broke down walls of injustice in American society in ways few people in the twentieth century had. In honor of his accomplishments, the third Monday of every January is set aside as a national holiday.

As with every King holiday, the “I Have A Dream Speech” he delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, will be read and listened to at public gatherings throughout the United States, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. This speech contains prophetic themes we still use to measure our commitment to America’s political scriptures: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The speech also contains moral themes we still use to measure our commitment toward liberty and justice for all. One phrase in the speech that addresses the latter issue is the following:

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.

King’s “content of their character” phrase remains a lodestone for academic and social commentators who assess our progress toward human flourishing, particularly in the field of education.

For example, scholars James Davison Hunter and Ryan Olson in 2018 coedited a book titled The Content of Their Character: Inquiries into the Varieties of Moral Formation. It is the first in-depth investigation into how families and students of every race experience moral formation in high schools, and into its impact on the students’ character. In the introduction to the book, the editors highlight early influences in King’s life and their importance to his moral formation and the content of his character as a public servant.

The meaning of King’s words is still a subject of dispute. Some people believe King’s “content of their character” is not an invitation to create a color-blind nation. Instead, it is an exhortation for the evaluation of an individual’s worth without ignoring race and heritage in the process. Others disagree. They believe the phrase is a commitment to character first, color second—if at all. This debate will likely endure for decades to come.

King’s birthday also provides an opportunity to acknowledge his attentiveness to character. Character for most of King’s existence was an essential focus of his philosophy of education. To put it another way, character for King was, well, king. And the formation of this belief began decades before he delivered the “I Have A Dream Speech” in August 1963.

Early in his life, King understood the importance of education for character development. At age 18, he published “The Purpose of Education” in the January-February 1947 edition of the Maroon Tiger, the student newspaper at Morehouse College. King began the article by identifying two functions of education. The first is that “Education must enable a man to become more efficient.” The second is that “Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” By doing both, King contends the human race can achieve one of its chief aims in education—“to save man from the morass of propaganda.” Who are the purveyors of this propaganda?” King named the press. He also named the classroom, pulpit, and speaker’s platform as guilty stakeholders. But King reminds us to do more.

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough,” he wrote. “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

In closing, King believed character and education were always intertwined. On this King holiday, let us reflect on how we can utilize education to make King’s dream a reality for this generation and those to come.

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Gerard Robinson is the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, a Washington, D.C.-based research and education initiative that partners with historically black colleges and universities and other postsecondary institutions to develop solutions to the most pressing education, entrepreneurship, and criminal justice issues in fragile US communities.