Schools still unequal 50 years after King’s death

Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on April 4, 1968, as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. On this painful anniversary, we miss his vision and moral clarity as much as ever.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Library of Congress photo

King was in Memphis to support union sanitation workers who were striking for a living wage and safe working conditions. He was also launching a national Poor People’s Campaign to fight poverty. Today, unions are under attack in the courts and statehouses, and the social safety net is shredding.

The president of the United States was elected in part by appealing to resentment of racial progress and social change. His base doesn’t flinch at expressions of racism, misogyny and religious bigotry.

And then there are the schools.

King, early in his public career, pushed for vigorous implementation of Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared “separate but unequal” schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. He expressed frustration at the slow pace of educational change in the South. What would King think today of the fact that the zenith of American school integration was reached in the 1980s and that schools have since become more segregated by race and class?

As the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and other scholars and writers have shown, schools across the country have been growing more segregated, not less. In Indiana, a report last year from the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University found that schools remain largely segregated by race, ethnicity and family income.

Charter schools and voucher programs, with their philosophy that families should grab what’s best for themselves and their children, have made things worse. Black and poor students are more likely than their white and middle-class peers to be suspended from school; some of the harshest discipline policies are in no-excuses charter schools.

King’s life and legacy are taught and celebrated in America’s schools. But as Stephen Sawchuk writes in Education Week, students get a watered-down and tidied-up version of the civil-rights leader, missing his radical vision of social change and fearless advocacy for justice, freedom and peace.

More than anything else, we miss the moral urgency of King and the many activists and little-known organizers who drove the civil rights movement. Fifty-five years ago, King published the book “Why We Can’t Wait.” When it comes to justice and fairness in America’s schools, we’ve waited far too long.

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