Freeman Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and author of the book “Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth from the Civil Right Crusade to STEM Achievement.”
More than 50 years ago, inspired by words that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in a Birmingham church, I joined hundreds of other children in a civil rights march through the streets of my home town. I was not a brave child, and I knew, as the others did, the risk of going to jail.
We marched, though, because his words gave us hope that the world could be different.
I am often asked how much society has changed since the 1960s and how the challenges we faced then compare with those of today.
My response reflects my ambivalence about our progress. As a child, I could not have imagined that I would one day become the president of a predominantly white research university, and I would not have guessed how many more people would have the opportunity to become educated. In 1960, less than 10 percent of Americans had earned bachelor’s degrees. Today, we’re up to nearly a third. In the same period, African Americans have gone from a college completion rate of about 3 percent to almost 20 percent, contributing to the growth of a thriving black middle class.
However, far too many families remain stuck in poverty. For them, conditions now are as bad as they were in the ’60s — if not worse. Drugs and guns, combined with damaging public policies, fuel a cycle of violence and mass incarceration. Many young people feel hopeless and betrayed.
Postsecondary education has become a requirement for many, if not most, of our society’s well-paying jobs. However, the recent gains in college completion are spread unevenly. For example, since 1975, the percentage of the wealthiest quarter of Americans earning four-year degrees has jumped from 38 percent to 79 percent , while the percentage for those at the bottom has barely moved, from 7 to 11 percent.
I am stunned and saddened by the growth of inequality in our society and the fact that many children have simply stopped dreaming about the future. Yet I also remind myself how far we’ve come. If we don’t count our progress, we lose sight of the lessons we’ve learned, and we run the risk of losing hope.
Public policies adopted in the 1960s and 1970s have helped so many of us. Landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act, strengthened schools, expanded civil rights and helped many more people graduate from college.
These changes were possible because Americans during that period truly believed that the world could be different than it was.
To address the stubborn challenges facing our society today, we again need reasons to believe that the world can change. We need hope.
I’d suggest we can find hope in a place that’s received considerable attention in recent weeks: Baltimore. I’ve lived and worked here the past 40 years, and I see the many ways this region reflects the country’s progress and its challenges.
In the ’60s, we had not yet seen a woman of any race as mayor of Baltimore (or almost any other major U.S. city) or African Americans in such leadership roles as chief executive of Baltimore Gas & Electric, or dean of the University of Maryland Medical School, or president of the University of Baltimore. Now we see all of these, among many other African American leaders.
The Baltimore region is also prosperous. A recent Brookings Institution analysis notes that it ranks seventh among the country’s 35 largest metropolitan areas in per capita income. It is second only to the District in median income for black households. Black professionals are doing well here.
Nevertheless, the region’s challenges are significant. About 11 percent of Baltimore City’s black residents are unemployed, compared with about 5 percent of white residents, according to the Brookings analysis. The city’s black poverty rate is just under 27 percent. While this is lower than the rate in three-quarters of large U.S. cities, such high poverty rates should be troubling to all of us.
The challenge now is to reflect on how we can extend the gains of the past 50 years to even more Americans. We have asked hard questions like this before. That alone should give us hope as we move forward in an effort to bring the benefits of our nation’s prosperity to all. We now have the opportunity — indeed, the responsibility — to look again at public policies in such areas as education and job training, housing and transportation, drug enforcement and incarceration.
I often think about the other children who marched in 1963. While we shared hopes and dreams, many of them never had the opportunities I did. Ultimately, they marched so that others could live their dreams.
Our challenge now is holding on to that legacy — and helping many more children turn possibilities into reality.
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