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MLK Preached Desegregation, But Segregation is Still the Norm in Our Schools

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

This upcoming Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday in the U.S. that celebrates MLK’s life and achievements, most notably his nonviolent activism during the Civil Rights Movement.

During a time when nearly all spaces—schools, pools, restaurants, restrooms, etc.—were segregated by race, he helped lead the movement that eventually led to desegregation.

"There is no such thing as separate but equal. Separation, segregation, inevitably makes for inequality." - MLK

For years, I thought “segregation” was a term to describe something of the past. But when I started working for MCIE, people used the word “segregated” when describing our schools all the time. But they weren’t referring to racial segregation; they were talking about segregating schools and students based on ability.

That’s right. Those “special” schools with “special” classes that teach “special” subjects to our “special” children aren’t so special after all. They’re just segregated spaces that were created so that students with disabilities would have to go to a separate space to receive their education. Self-contained special education classrooms are just a nice way of saying that we’re segregating our students with disabilities from our nondisabled students.

The scary thing is that the same arguments that were used in favor of segregation back when MLK was alive are now being used against our disabled students. People are constantly saying that students with disabilities can’t keep up, won’t get anything out of it, and just don’t belong in our general education classrooms.

And while racial segregation is no longer something that's legal, it hasn't disappeared either. Disability segregation continues, which can sometimes lead to systemic segregation when Black students are over-identified as having a disability. Plus, our public school system, which separates students based on zip code and is funded through housing taxes, hasn’t fixed the problem of racial segregation due to a history of redlining and other social injustices. Not to mention that some parents choose to send their students to private school specifically to keep them out of their community’s public school.

We might think segregation is a thing of the past, but it’s time we come to terms with the fact that it’s blaringly part of our present. It’s time to reimagine our education system so that we can build schools that are equitable and created for all students.


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Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.


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