For most Americans, though, knowledge about King — and basic understanding of civil rights history overall — doesn't extend much beyond that. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, for instance, reported that only 2 percent of high school seniors could correctly answer a basic question about the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
A 2011 study by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) looked at public K-12 education standards and curriculum requirements in every state, and found that 35 states – including California – failed to cover many of the core concepts and details about the Civil Rights Movement. Sixteen of these states (including Iowa and New Hampshire) did not require any instruction about the movement.
“For too many students, their civil rights education boils down to two people and four words: Rosa Parks, Dr. King and ‘I have a dream,’” said Maureen Costello, director of SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program. “By having weak or non-existent standards for history, particularly for the Civil Rights Movement, (most states) are saying loud and clear that it isn’t something students need to learn.”
The study also found that much of what is taught about the movement in schools largely focuses on major leaders and events, but fails to address the systemic and often persistent issues like racism and economic injustice.
Throughout the country, Dr. King is honored as a national hero. Hundreds of cities have streets that bear his name, and two years ago a memorial on the National Mall in Washington was unveiled. But if Dr. King's teachings aren't passed on to younger generations, the report notes, then all these tributes fall far short of handing down his legacy.