LEWISTON — History matters, the keynote speaker for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day address at Bates College said Monday.

Before progress on racial equality can be achieved, society needs “racial education” to reflect the contributions of enslaved African-Americans, said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Muhammad, who grew up in Chicago, said that while attending college in Pennsylvania, something happened that changed his life forever.

He told a standing-room-only crowd at the Bates College Chapel that a student newspaper columnist had written that the MLK holiday was “a sham,” that affirmative action was a “dirty little secret” because it promoted blacks over whites, Muhammad said.

He complained about the column to college officials, who suggested Muhammad debate the columnist.

But Muhammad said he didn’t know enough to win.


“I was ignorant of my own history,” he said. 

His plans of working in finance changed. He became an educator, writer and historian. Muhammad has appeared in print and broadcast in The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and MSNBC. He’s considered a national expert on race, history and Martin Luther King Jr.

As King grew from a rookie pastor in Montgomery to the civil rights icon, “Dr. King kept his eyes on the prize of human rights and peace,” Muhammad said. King was determined that “all will not just sit at the table of equality but would eat there, too,” Muhammad said.

King believed that accurate history was a big void in society; too much was left out by white history writers, Muhammad said.

Today, history still doesn’t teach appreciation for black contributions, Muhammad said. Before the Civil War, slave owners became rich selling in international markets cotton, sugar and rice raised by slaves. That brought capital to the colonies and built the nation’s economy.

In 1860, the 4 million slaves in the United States were valued at $3 billion — three times the value of all American manufacturing, more than all of the railroads and seven times the value of all of the banks, Muhammad said. It’s no wonder slave owners were willing to go to war, he said. 


Not enough students today are taught that presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk and Zachary Taylor were slave owners, Muhammad said.

“Slavery is not an aberration in the American story,” he said. “It is the quintessential American story.”

President Barack Obama has said what happened during the Holocaust must be taught to children, he said.

“Then why is it OK in far too many schools and homes to deny slavery as part of the American story?” Muhammad said. “Slavery cannot slip into the dark recesses of our memories. Too often, as a consequence of our ignorance of our past, change and progress have been short-lived, history forgotten.”

Muhammad provided evidence that slave history is not shared or appreciated.

“We’ve watched as Texas whitewashed its textbooks, taking out civil rights history,” he said.


In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a survey of 1,200 high school seniors nationwide.

“Only 2 percent could answer correctly a two-part question: ‘What was Brown vs. the Board of Education, and what does it matter?” he said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center also reported that too many states required little or no civil rights history classes.

Last year, Scholastic published — then pulled — a book in which “happy slaves prepared a birthday cake for George Washington,” Muhammad said.

In 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences issued “The Heart of the Matter,” a call to action on a national decline of humanities research, too few parents reading to their children, social study teachers who had been poorly trained and Americans who had become more parochial and less worldly in their education.

At the time, Muhammad said, “they had no idea that Donald Trump would become the 45th president as the result.”


What Georgetown University has done is part of the solution, he said.

In 1838, Georgetown sold 272 of its slaves to avoid financial ruin. In 2016, the university met with slave descendants to reconcile the university’s past, Muhammad said.

Georgetown issued a formal apology and is building a memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the university. It is also renaming two buildings after African-Americans and awarding preferential admittance status to descendants of the slaves.

Institutes becoming more honest and recognizing contributions of slaves will inspire more young people to make their futures better, Muhammad said. 

Reparation by “one agency, one company, one college at a time moves us closer to where Dr. King wanted America to go,” he said.  

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