Education: The civil rights issue that matters most

Courtland Milloy
Columnist October 16, 2011

Look at the protesters, little children. They’re marching in the District for jobs and justice. But if you want a job and some justice, you’ll have to march to the beat of a different drummer. When you hear Al Sharpton and other protest leaders chant “No justice? No peace,” chant back: “No education? No way.”

Education — that’s the civil rights issue that matters most, little children. Without it, the only justice that you’re likely to get will be meted out through the criminal justice system. And the chances of finding employment will be virtually nil.

Hold a March for Smarts, little children, and see who shows up for that.

Look at all the dignitaries gathered for Sunday’s dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall. Hear them sing: “We Shall Overcome.” But if you believe overcoming should be more than a song, little children, better to march over to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown and dedicate yourself to academic excellence.

Speaking at the memorial dedication, President Obama again mentioned “fixing schools so that every child gets a world-class education.” He’d already announced a goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. So there is much to look forward to.

The nation’s 105 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — which produce most of the nation’s black doctors, lawyers and scientists — award about 36,000 undergraduate degrees each year. To help meet Obama’s goal, they’d need about 33 percent more students graduating each year.

But there’s a catch.

“Many college freshmen at HBCUs are nowhere near college-ready when they arrive on campus,” Deputy Education Secretary Tony Miller said at an HBCU conference last year. “When incoming students have to spend their first year in remedial classes, it drives up HBCU dropout rates and burns up those students’ Pell grants.”

There’s something else: Just 8 percent of the nation’s public school teachers are African American, even though more than half of the students in the largest public school systems are black and Latino. Worse still, only 2 percent of the nation’s public school teachers are black men.

“We know that black teachers are more likely than their white peers to want to work in high-poverty, high-needs schools and are more likely to stay there than their white counterparts,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at an HBCU conference in 2009. “Every day, African American teachers are doing absolutely invaluable work in helping to close the insidious achievement gap.”

So where are the men?

Little children, notice how we make you celebrate great black male educators during Black History Month: Benjamin Mays at Morehouse, Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, Carter G. Woodson at Howard. But when it comes to putting a great black male educator in your classroom, suddenly it’s not that important after all.

The Obama administration is committed to reforming K-12 public school education, Miller said, and is “devoted to fixing the college pipeline, especially for disadvantaged students.”

But at Sunday’s ceremony, Obama asked us to understand that “change does not come quick.”

Meanwhile, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, speaking earlier at the same ceremony, noted that the prison industrial complex has managed to set up a “cradle-to-prison pipeline” that’s been siphoning up young black men for years.

Little children, make no mistake about it: You have a tough row to hoe.

Long after Occupy DC has decamped from the city and the protests over economic inequality have faded from memory, you’ll still have to occupy those classrooms and continue to struggle against educational inequity.

As an aside, you’ve probably noticed that it’s okay for adults to act out in the streets when we feel shortchanged but not for you to act up when cheated out of an education.

March on anyway.

“I would say to you, don’t drop out of school,” King told students in his 1967 “Life’s Blueprint” speech. “I understand all of the sociological reasons, but I urge you that in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you are forced to live in — stay in school.”

Education might be the key to the Promised Land, but not every adult will help you get there. Just remember the brave youngsters who persevered in King’s day, little children, and don’t be afraid to march alone.

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