Bending toward justice

This is a good time to remember that, yes, the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it can be excruciatingly long.

That’s a slightly twisted version of an aphorism that’s most strongly associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate today. Around the country, many schools are closed for the holiday. Others are in session, but hopefully teachers are teaching about King’s life and legacy.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Library of Congress photo

And hopefully schools everywhere are focusing their history lessons not just on King but on the civil rights struggle, and not only frontline leaders like King and Rep. John Lewis but strategists like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin and fearless combatants like Fannie Lou Hamer and Vernon Dahmer. (Look them up!).

The effort to mark King’s birthday as a national holiday began soon after he was murdered in April 1968. Even that took 15 years to succeed; the arc was long. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill that made the third Monday in January a federal holiday memorializing King. Authors of the bill were Republican Jack Kemp of New York state and Democrat Katie Hall of Gary, Ind.

Indiana University professor Bill Wiggins, who died last month, placed the quest for a King holiday in a much longer history of black freedom holidays, including Emancipation Proclamation anniversaries and Juneteenth, which marks when news of the end of the Civil War reached Galveston, Texas. Continue reading

In education, not much to celebrate on MLK Day

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, Continue reading

‘State of education’ speech – what would Martin think?

The high-minded idealism in Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s “state of education” speech was almost enough to make a person shout amen. But you have to wonder what Martin Luther King Jr., whose words Bennett invoked, would have thought of the superintendent’s assertion that school funding doesn’t matter. Or his argument that schools will compete their way to excellence.

Bennett spoke Monday at Creston Middle School on the east side of Indianapolis. The speech will be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday on public TV stations, including WTIU in Bloomington. You can read the text on the Indiana Department of Education website.

Citing Democratic U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s statement that education is “the civil rights issue of our time,” the Republican superintendent went further: “It’s the civil rights issue for every generation.”

Bennett talked about visiting Indiana schools where most kids come from low-income and minority households. “While there are some exceptional educators in these schools, research tells us these students are least likely to have great teachers and leadership,” he said. Continue reading