On this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it’s good to remember that education was at the center of the many key battles of the 20th century civil rights movement. From Little Rock to New Orleans to the campuses of Southern state universities, the brave struggle of African-American students and parents to secure a decent education inspired the nation a half century ago.
John Lewis, later a hero of the movement and now a Georgia congressman, was a high-school freshman in 1954, when the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.
“I remember the feeling of jubilation I had reading the newspaper story – all the newspaper stories – that day,” he wrote in his autobiography. “No longer would I have to ride a broken-down bus almost 40 miles each day to attend classes at a ‘training’ school with hand-me-down books and supplies. Come fall I’d be riding a state-of-the-art bus to a state-of-the-art school, an integrated school.”
We all know what happened. Southern officials resisted – 50 years ago this month George Wallace took office as governor of Georgia declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” White parents moved their students to private “academies.” When the courts ordered busing to desegregate schools, riots ensued in Boston, Louisville and elsewhere.
Arguably, though, blatant resistance did less damage to the promise of the Brown decision than white flight from cities to suburbs and urban middle-class flight from public to private schools, accompanied by an attitude that the education of poor or minority kids is someone else’s problem. Nearly 60 years after the court ruling, we’ve yet to embrace the ideals that gave hope to a young John Lewis.
// While minority students have made significant gains, large gaps remain between white and minority students in test scores and graduation rates.
// School choice, the favorite strategy of many of today’s education reformers, has made schools even more segregated, at least according to some studies.
President Barack Obama’s inauguration today was a reminder of how far we have come as a nation when it comes to race. The state of our schools shows how far we have to go to live up to Martin Luther King’s vision of a beloved community.