Friday, prominent Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers – who was murdered in 1963 in his own driveway after meeting with NAACP lawyers – was honored with the naming of a Navy Supply Ship after him.  This follows a Navy tradition of giving ships in the support fleet names of honored pioneers, explorers, and other notables.

Medgar Evers, Civil Rights Activist and Honoree

Medgar Evers, Civil Rights Activist and Honoree

The announcement was made during  former Mississippi governor and current Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s speech at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.

Evers, who was the NAACP’s first field secretary for the state of Mississippi, was integral during the Civil Rights Movement in MS, in organizing nonviolent protests, voter registration drives, and boycotts.  And, his tragic death was the impetus that prompted President John F. Kennedy to ask Congress for a comprehensive civil rights bill.

An administration statement that was released in conjunction with the Navy’s announcement said the following of Evers:

“At a time when our country was wrestling with finally ending segregation and racial injustice, Evers lead civil rights efforts to secure the right to vote for all African-Americans and to integrate public facilities, schools and restaurants.”

Medgar Evers was thirty-seven years old when he was shot, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Sojourn to the Past remembers, recognizes, and honors Civil Rights activists who came before us like Mr. Evers.  We hope to continue his legacy of nonviolent, educated actions in the fight for equality for all.

Thomas Perez

Thomas Perez

Earlier today, the Senate voted 72-22 to confirm President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department.  Civil Rights attorney Thomas E. Perez was named Assistant Attorney General, Head of the Civil Rights Division.  Once announced as the nominee, confirmation hearings were held back in April; however, debate between party lines kept him in the holding pattern until recently.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, had the following to say about the confirmation:

“There are no questions about the qualifications of Tom Perez. During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Perez made clear his commitment that the Justice Department would enforce the law. In the arena of civil rights, living up to those assurances is particularly important. Given that Tom Perez has a distinguished record of public service and a long career advancing civil rights, I have full confidence that he is the right person to restore the Civil Rights Division to its finest traditions of independent law enforcement.”

To learn more about Thomas Perez, visit his page in Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, where he served as Secretary of the Department.

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced this year’s recipients for the highly-sought-after designations of MacArthur Fellows.  Among the award-winners of this coveted fellowship was Jerry Mitchell, a long-time reporter for the Jackson, Mississippi-based paper The Clarion-Ledger.  Mitchell – who was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2006 – has been with that newspaper since 1986.  His work is being lauded because of his in-depth and unrelenting investigative reporting of tracking civil rights crimes.

Reporter Jerry Mitchell, selected recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship

Reporter Jerry Mitchell, selected recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship

As an NPR announcemnent stated, he “spent the past two decades reporting on unpunished violence during the civil rights movement in Mississippi and the South, beginning with the 1963 killing of civil rights leader Medgar Evers”, and is planning on taking occasional breaks from the newspaper to put forth even more time into this work post-award.

Accompanying the affectionately-dubbed “genius grants” is a $500,000 fellowship fund.

An audio clip (and corresponding transcript) of the September 28th interview by National Public Radio are available for listening and viewing online.

Sojourn to the Past commends Mr. Mitchell for his noble actions, and congratulates him on the recent honor.

This week, The 14th Dalai Lama is in Memphis, Tennessee to receive the 2009 International Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum.  The Freedom Awards is an annual event, which serves as the Museum’s largest fundraiser, and that honors individuals who have made significant contributions in civil rights and who have laid the foundation for present and future leaders in the battle for human rights.  Presenting the Dalai Lama with the key to the city and a proclamation making him an official citizen of Memphis for his devotion to civil rights, were Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton, Jr. and Memphis Mayor Myron Lowery.

His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama

His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama

The National Civil Rights Museum is located in the Lorraine Motel, which is known because it is the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  “I never met him, but I admire him very much,” he said.  According to a Huffington Post article by Tamara Conniff, the Dalai Lama became quiet and pensive at the mention of Dr. King’s name, as paying homage to the influential Civil Rights leader is what prompted His Holiness to make the trek to Memphis.

Though living what seems like decades and worlds apart, the Dalai Lama and Dr. King have a distinguishing fact in common: in the face of adversity, the common thread in each of their fights wasn’t a fight at all – it was more powerful than that – it was an unyielding strong-hold to the ideals of non-violent action.  In the Civil Rights era in the United States, King was the face of peaceful protest of all that was unjust about the law; in modern day China, the exiled religious leader infuses all of his Free Tibet messages with stresses of this same notion.

Sojourn to the Past salutes the 2009 winners of the Freedom Awards, and their committment to conquering inequality without violent confrontation or conflict.  Sojourn to the Past’s vision promotes social justice through non-violence and inspired action.

As the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) 2009 Convention presses on this week in Pittsburgh, it’s an opportune time to stop and reflect what can be accomplished when people with common visions power together to work towards common goals. Unions – through their storied history in the United States – are, by definition, alliances of people or parties formed in mutual interest or benefit. ALF-CIO, a national trade union center, is the single largest federation of unions in the United States and Canada, representing more than 10 million workers in North America in all types of occupations from Air Traffic Controllers to Utility Workers.
Wade Henderson, President of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

Wade Henderson, President of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

As the Convention was calling to a vote on organizing, the President of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) Wade Henderson told members that union freedoms are, indeed, an issue related to civil rights. And, in addition he urged Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, assuring that the civil rights community would work in conjunction with union representatives to see that happen. “Union participation can begin to lift the dead weight of decades of discrimination. For African Americans, women and Latinos the best way to build a better life is to join together with others to form a union,” said Henderson. Need proof? The advantage of being in a union is obvious to Henderson, who cited that African American union members earn 28 percent more than their nonunion counterparts.

Student Alumni of Sojourn to the Past will always share common ground.

Student Alumni of Sojourn to the Past will always share common ground.

The past student participants of Sojourn to the Past are not unlike a union in many ways. They shared a similar experience that establishes common ground. They have a bond that even though they may not personally know those who have gone before them or after them, they look to them as a teammate. They know that together their voices are much louder than any single one of them screaming at the cause all alone. And they are committed to pushing and pulling each other through triumphant and difficult times, taking turns leading if another stumbles. The Sojourn alumni, perhaps most importantly, believe in perpetuation – they are not acting solely on their own behalf, but for the betterment of the lives of the generations to come.
Check out some of the things that students who have made the Sojourn journey have to say here and be inspired!

by Pharoh Martin
NNPA National Correspondent


WASHINGTON (NNPA) – A day before the 55th anniversary of the Brown V. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that made segregated schools illegal, Reverend Al Sharpton led a rally for education equality, but solutions are still not clear.

“The crisis is that 55 years ago education was separate and unequal,” Sharpton declared to the hundreds in attendance in the White House Eclipse on Saturday. “And 55 years later education is still separate and unequal.”

Sharpton stood on stage with Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine – a group of nine Black Arkansas teenagers who was escorted by the 101 Airborne Division into a desegregated Little Rock high school after enduring abuses by the previously all-White student body. Together they led a chant urging Washington to “close the gap!”

The rally comes on the heels of a McKinsey study that found quantifiable and disturbing educational achievement disparities between students from different racial and economic backgrounds, as well as between the United States and other countries.

The study found that by the fourth grade African-American and Hispanic students were already nearly three years behind their White peers, a trend that worsens as they get older.

And while students from higher-income backgrounds fare better than those that come from less fortunate backgrounds statistics show that Black and Latino students in every economic class scored significantly lower in math and reading tests than White students of the same economic class.

Closing the education achievement gap, as its referred to by the study and by the Education Equality Project (EEP), an education advocacy organization founded by Reverend Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, has become a national priority but there is not a consensus on solutions for reform nor is there a consensus on why such great disparity of achievement exists between different student groups even though the gap was widely considered to be even as recently as 1998.

“The McKinsey report was focused on collecting the data and measuring the economic impact — both individually and socially,” says Bennet Ratcliff, a representative of the Education Equality Project. “It did not address why the achievement gap exists. EEP believes — and studies support — that African-American and Latino students can dramatically close the gap if they are taught by quality teachers. The current education system offers — and has historically offered — some of the lowest performing teachers to African American and Latino students which is a significant part of the problem. Rev. Sharpton has spoken eloquently on this subject of receiving a ”back of
the bus education”.

The issue is serious enough that even fundamental conservatives like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich jumped on board to speak in favor of education reform at Sharpton’s rally.

The McKinsey study estimates that the U.S. economy lost more than $3 trillion dollars in potential gains because of failures to close the educational achievement gap to its 1998 near even levels, a figure that is more than the amount loss during the current deep economic recession and the one experienced at the beginning of the 1980s. This is a number that will only grow if nothing is done to curtail the trend because the US Census Bureau forecasts that non-White students will make up more than half of the national student population as earliest as 2023.

Why are Black students, even those from privileged backgrounds, performing worse than their White counterparts?

”I think it’s an institutional racism,” Sharpton responds in an interview. “I think it’s because we see education in our communities, regardless of economic income and class, is different.”

It’s easy to simply cite institutional racism as the reason that African-Americans are falling behind but that doesn’t account for Black students that don’t attend majority Black schools.

”What we saw going into the end of the 1990s was an actual closing of the gaps, and by 1999 we found that we reached parity in African-American’s ability to graduate high school and move toward college,” said Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP’s executive vice president of advocacy and director of the civil rights organization’s Washington bureau. “It was a corner stone for real first-class education for all. However, some of the provisions of the No Child Left Behind act, including the high-stakes testing provision, which was supposed to be put in place to keep track of how well schools were doing ended up being used to penalize students.”

Shelton said that while some students who traditionally did well in classroom assignments and tests were held up when it came time for high stakes testing, which students must take in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades in order to matriculate to the next grade or graduate high school, a test score became the determination if a student could advance or not.

“The graduation rate for African-Americans started declining again, and in that time, we started seeing that great gulf happening again,” he said. “Now you have cities where one-half of Black males are dropping out because they can’t pass that test. The test should be reevaluated. The tests should have never been the single source to determine who matriculates,” Shelton says.

The high stakes testing standard is nationwide so all students, regardless of race and class, must pass the same requirements. Black students are not less capable of passing tests, but rather, as one parent suggests, may be more complacent because expectations are lower.

”I think that African-American kids are testing lower than White kids … because the expectations are not as high for our kids,” says Virginia Watkins-Ford, executive director of DC Parents for School Choice, an organization that fights for school reform in DC on behalf of the District’s parents. “When you don’t expect kids to do well then they have no reason to do well. If we raise our expectations and the general education raises their expections than we will see some positive outcomes.”

During his rally speech Sharpton insinuated that it’s possible for a man of color who comes from a single-parent home to become president but a significant part is because he also went to the best schools.

According to National Center for Education Statistics, less than ten percent of students from the most selective colleges in the nation came from the bottom half of the income distribution.

In most cases, school districts must cut through time-consuming layers of political red tape internally and from teachers unions in order to make any type of grandiose educational reforms happen.

For those very reasons, organizations such as the Broad Foundation, whose education work is focused on dramatically improving urban K-12 public education, specifically urban schools, which educates 40 percent of all students in poverty, favor charter schools and school districts that are controlled by a single entity such as a mayor instead of a school board.

Shelton thinks that charter schools can be helpful as long as they are not being used as tools to undercut public schools and warns that because they are not regulated as heavily they could also have problems.

“The way the charter school system was being used by their administration is that you could have teachers in the class room who [weren’t] even certified, who didn’t have degrees and wasn’t allowed to bargain to become a part of teachers unions,” Shelton said. “But the concept of charter schools is a very good one.”

EEP is advocating on a national level around issues like merit pay, tenure reform, accountability, and charter schools while supporting on a grass-roots level urban districts that have begun reform efforts.

“We want equal funding, accountability of teachers and incentive for teachers to teach in areas that are considered disadvantaged, and parental participation. And we must reform the public school system. These privatized schools only help some students,” Sharpton said. “We gotta save them all.”

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Fifty-five years after the Supreme Court ruled that all of America’s children are entitled to an equal education, the nation’s most vulnerable — minority children and children from low income families — are still sometimes subject to a substandard educational system.

Troubled that millions of students are left behind because they don’t have access to the resources required for a high quality education, Congressman Chaka Fattah (from Pennsylvania) has introduced the Student Bill of Rights to address the inadequacies and inequities in educational opportunity. “America is the land of opportunity,” Fattah said. “It is a national scandal to deprive poor children of a decent education simply because they live in a certain neighborhood.”

The Student Bill of Rights is similar to legislation previously introduced by Fattah and calls for states to provide highly effective teachers, early childhood education, college prep curricula and equitable instructional resources to all students who attend public schools. Current law requires that schools within the same district provide comparable educational services; this bill would extend that basic protection to the state level by requiring comparability across school districts.

What can you do to help? If you also believe in equal rights for students, speak out and make your voice heard! Write to your local government officials and let them know that you, too, would like to see ample opportunities for education across the country.