01/22/2013 09:07 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

For L.A. Schools, Stories of Modern-day Martin Luther Kings

When President Barack Obama took the ceremonial oath of office on Monday, he placed his right hand on both the Lincoln Bible and a Bible handed down across generations by the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a remarkable tribute to two men whose stories of leadership and courage against injustice remind us, as the president said, that although freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.

As the King family told the press after the inauguration, Martin Luther King saw himself not as a crusader, but as a preacher and a teacher. Fifteen years ago, I traveled around the world from villages to metropolises to record the stories of human rights defenders who were themselves the Martin Luther Kings of their countries and their times. With photographs by Eddie Adams, we turned those stories into the book Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World. Today, it's grown into a photo exhibit, a play by Ariel Dorfman, and a human rights school curriculum at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights that brings the stories of these real life heroes to over half a million students each year around the world from Cambodia to Columbus, Ohio.

On Thursday night, I have the honor of joining students from the RFK Community Schools in Los Angeles, as well as actors Martin Sheen, Trevor Donovan, Catherine Keener, Paul Sorvino, and Alfre Woodard for a special theatrical performance of Dorfman's play, Speak Truth To Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark, which will raise money to bring our human rights curriculum and the stories of these defenders into schools throughout the city.

It's the story of Elie Wiesel from Romania, surviving Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944 to become an unparalleled leader in the fight against global genocide from Armenia to Bosnia to Darfur, telling the world his hope would be that, "my past should not become your children's future."

It's the story of Juliana Dogbadzi from Ghana, sold into child sexual slavery by her own family in 1993, who escaped as a teenager and -- with no education or job training -- took the fight to shutter centuries-old fetish shrines to the highest levels of government, and won.

And it's the story of Librada Paz from upstate New York in 2013, carrying on the battle for farmworkers' rights that my father and Cesar Chavez championed in Southern California so many years ago.

These are stories that need to be told in every classroom in America -- lessons that aren't just about how to pass a test but how to solve a problem, how to heal an injustice, and how to recognize their own power as citizens of the world, whether the tyrant they're facing is a schoolyard bully or a powerful dictator. The RFK Center's Speak Truth To Power program gives teachers curriculum resources that introduce their students to the stories of human rights defenders and empower students to identify as human rights defenders themselves.

On Monday, students across the United States stayed home from school to honor Dr. King's legacy and celebrate our nation's ongoing civil rights story. I will be honored to spend Thursday night with the talented young people of the RFK Community Schools -- built on the site of the Ambassador Hotel where my father was assassinated in 1968 -- as they launch the Speak Truth To Power curriculum in Los Angeles by giving voice to the defenders who carry on Dr. King's and Robert Kennedy's message of peace and freedom.

As we say in Speak Truth To Power: Courage begins with one voice. It's that simple.