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.

Myrlie Evers-Williams

May 25, 2009

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Civil rights leader Myrlie Evers-Williams is perhaps best remembered as the widow of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi state field secretary for the NAACP who in 1963 was gunned down in the driveway of his home in Jackson. In the years since the assassination and two hung juries that left the accused gunman, white supremacist Byron De la Beckwith, a free man, Mrs. Evers has continued to wage a lonely war to keep her husband’s memory and dreams alive and to bring his killer to justice. Her diligence eventually paid off when Beckwith was brought to trial for a third time and finally, in 1994, found guilty of the murder of Medgar Evers, more than 30 years after the crime.

Ms. Evers-Williams is a phenomenal woman of great strength and courage. Her dedication to civil rights and equality is exemplified by her activist role, linking together business, government, and social issues to further human rights and equality. On February 18, 1995, she was elected to the position of Chairman of the National Board of Directors of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the support of a strong member base of the NAACP, she is credited with spearheading the operations that restored the Association to its original status as the premier civil rights organization.

Evers-Williams says that she “greets today and the future with open arms.” This credo has carried her through years of struggle and success. Her children and six grandchildren remain her strongest supporters in her continued fight to secure equal rights for all people, and to preserve those rights for future generations.

We feel both proud and grateful to have someone such as Ms. Evers-Williams practicing Sojourn Living and fighting for equal rights for all.

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We just spotted someone living out the Sojourn values! Not only does he believe in equality, but he fights for equal rights for students every day of his life. Read on to find out who he is.

There are many problems children face today as far as their education is concerned. Mark Dann, a pro bono attorney, is an individual standing up for these children’s rights. Dann is passionate about making sure that all students have equal opportunities in school, today.

When he was young, Dann’s parents faced financial difficulties during an economic downturn. They thought about moving to the South where the cost of living was much cheaper and jobs were more readily available. Instead they decided to live more frugally  in order for their son to continue recieing the kind of education they valued so much.

Today Dann tries cases that challenge educational disparities among schools – the kind of inequalities that kept his family on a tight budget when he was growing up in New York.

Presumed Guilty

May 14, 2009

mack_charles_parker_picMack Charles Parker was arrested for raping a white woman in 1959. A Mississippi state trooper offered his pistol to the woman’s husband so he could shoot Parker on the spot. The husband, Jimmy Walters, knew that his wife was not even certain that Parker was the attacker so he refused the offer and he reminded the officer that there was still doubt.

The Walters’, who had a sense of justice, seemed to be the minority in Poplarville, and there was such a strong cry for revenge against Parker that the judge couldn’t guarantee Parker’s safety. Because of this, the county jailer started burying the jail keys in his backyard at night.

M.C. Parker, at 23, had served two years in the Army and was working as a truck driver when he was arrested for the rape of June Walters. He lived with his mother, brother, sister and nephew in a poor black section of Lumberton, Mississippi and most of his wages were spent on his family. On the night of the rape, he had been out with friends, and it will never be known whether he was innocent or guilty of the crime.

Most white people in Poplarville were convinced Parker was a rapist including a former deputy sheriff who believed that Parker didn’t even deserve a jury trial. He ended up recruiting a lynch mob from men attending a prayer meeting and three days before Parker was to stand trial, eight masked white men dragged him from his jail cell, beat him, shot him in the heart and threw his body in the river, where he was found 10 days later. In addition to the former sheriff, the lynch mob included a Baptist preacher and the jailer, who had been persuaded, after all, to give up his keys. Many people in town were afraid of the mob, and many believed the lynching was justified so no one would offer any information to the FBI even though everyone knew who committed the crime. The county prosecutor himself praised the lynching and said he would refuse to prosecute anyone arrested for the crime.

Elsewhere, officials were not so ready to set aside the standards of justice and the lynching was called a “reprehensible act” and pledged a full investigation. This negative publicity only enraged whites in Poplarville, and they took their anger out on Mack Parker’s family. After numerous death threats, Parker’s family had to flee to California.

The verdict of the trial was more than a victory for the killers of Mack Parker; it was a victory for the white South over federal interference. The grand jury refused to indict and the lynch mob went free.

Some plainly viewed the lynching as an act of heroism against a federal government that was slowly destroying the Southern way of life. As one of Mississippi’s State Sovereignty Commission officials put it, “If we sat back and waited for the government to prosecute and punish Mack Parker, it would never happen. So we did it ourselves.”  Unfortunately, Mack Parker was presumed guilty and never had the chance for a trial to prove whether he was innocent or not.

This is a prime example of why it’s so imperative you not only practice your beliefs, but stand up for them as well. The majority is not always right and sometimes it just takes one voice, no matter how small or soft, to be the voice of reason and change the course of someone’s life.

This is one of the many lessons we learn each year during Sojourn to the Past. To learn more, visit www.sojournproject.org.

 

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viola-liuzzo-b-1-01212009-216pxIn 1965, a group of klansmen from Birmingham were sent to Selma, Alabama, with orders to keep the marchers under surveillance. At a stoplight, they noticed a green Oldsmobile with Michigan license plates driven by a white woman with a young, black male passenger. For the klansmen, the car and the passengers symbolized the two most despised aspects for the Civil Rights Movement: outsiders and race mixing.

Viola Liuzzo was a white mother from Detroit who had been shuttling marchers between Montgomery and Selma for three days. She had become known as a tireless and cheerful worker. By all descriptions, Viola was an extraordinary woman. At age 36, with five children at home, she had gone back to school to become a medical lab technician. She worked only for a few months and then quit in protest over the way female secretaries were treated. With the encouragement of her friend, she became one of the few white members of the National Assocation for the Advancement of Colored People. On March 7, 1965, Viola and her husband were watching the news when they saw the first clips of state troopers attacking Selma marchers. Tears rolled down Mrs. Liuzzo’s face and she brooded over the scene for days. Despite her husband’s concern, she got in her car and headed for Selma alone.

After the klansmen had spotted her and her young, black passenger they began to follow them. Surprisingly, Mrs. Liuzzo didn’t seem too concerned, and soon both cars were racing down the highway at 100 miles per hour. About 20 miles outside of Selma, the klansmen pulled up beside the car and one aimed his pistol out the window and shot Mrs. Liuzzo, shattering her skull. LeRoy Moton, her passenger, grabed the wheel and hit the brakes, and the car crashed into an embankment. When the klansmen walked over to inspect their work, Moton faked his death while they shone a light in the car. As soon as they left, Moton flagged down a truck carrying more civil rights workers, and although he was terrified, he was uninjured. Viola Liuzzo was dead.

After two trials (one being a hung jury where the klansmen were found not guilty), the three klansmen were eventually found guilty and each sentenced to 10 years in prison. This was the first conviction of murder in a civil rights case and was a landmark in southern racial history. It was also the first time the federal government successfully prosecuted a case of civil rights conspiracy.

 As intense a story as this is, we can look at it as a learning opportunity. It’s important that every day, in every way possble, we experience history in order to inspire the future.

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Innocents Lost

May 5, 2009

4littlegirls1In the basement of the ladies’ lounge of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, four young girls waited nervously for the worship service to begin. Addie Mae Collins, 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were in the choir. Carole Rosamond Robertson and Cynthia Diane Morris Wesley, both 14, had been chosen to serve as ushers. On the outside wall of the church, beneath a stone staircase, a dynamite  bomb had been planted eight hours earlier. It exploded at 10:22 a.m.shaking the whole church and killing the four young girls instantly. In the end, more than 20 people were hospitalized with injuries.

There had many bombings in Birmingham designed to stop the black struggle for equality, but nothing had been as evil as the dynamiting of children during Sunday School. The news spread quickly, and it sickened people of all races and all political allegiances throughout the world.

The FBI immediately investigated the bombing and discovered Klansmen planned it in response to the new school desegregation order. An eyewitness saw four white men plant the bomb, but inexplicably, no one was charged with the crime at that time. Two decades passed with no further action in the case. Then, in the mid 1990’s, it was reopened, and the U.S. Attorney, Doug Jones, successfully prosecuted Thomas Blanton in May 2001 and Bobby Cherry in May 2002. Both were sentenced to life in prison.

The Sixteenth Street bombing brought national attention to the evils of racism. More importantly, it made whites, who would never experience it themselves, feel the pain of racism. The day after the bombing a white lawyer named Charles Morgan gave a speech in Birmingham. He asked his audience: “Who did it?” and gave his own anguished answer: “We all did it…every person in this community who has in any way contributed…to the popularity of hatred is at least as guilty…as the demented fool who set that bomb.”

 At Sojourn Project, we use these stories from the past as learning experiences of the impact that hatred can have. We encourage you to embrace the differences you discover in your community. Differences are what make the world such a beautiful place.

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Freedom Riders

May 4, 2009

freedom-ridersOn May 4, 1961, a group of blacks and whites set out on a highly publicized trip to test a Supreme Court order outlawing segretation on bus terminals. They called themselves Freedom Riders.

Waiting for these buses to arrive at the terminal, an angry mob of white men carrying pipes, clubs, bricks and knives came at the bus. The driver drove off quickly as they saw the mob there waiting, but the mob caught up with the bus again right outside of Anniston, Alabama. The mob smashed all of the windows of the bus and threw a firebomb on board. The Freedom Riders all rushed out of the flames and into the hands of the mob where they were quickly brutally beaten by them.

The second busload of riders were all beaten by eight white men who boarded the bus when it pulled up to the terminal. The most seriously injured was a man named Walter Bergman who suffered a stroke as a result of the beating and was confined to a wheelchair for life.

Top federal officials arranged for the wounded Freedom Riders to fly out of Alabama, and students in Nashville made plans to finish the Freedom Ride. Federal officials tried to discourage them but were unsucessful. Once again these individuals attempting to finish the Freedom Ride were met by a mob – this time of more than 1,000 whites who beat them without police interference.

President Kennedy decided to protect the Freedom Riders since officials had failed to stop them. They rode into Jackson Mississippi unharmed the rest of the way, but were promptly arrested due to the fact that officials were told they could continue to enforce their segretgation laws if they would guarantee the Freedom Riders’ safety.

In September, bus companies were ordered to obey the earlier Supreme Court ruling which outlawed segregation in bus terminals. Once again, young protesters had exposed the injustices of segregation and forced the federal government to defend constitutional rights. As Martin Luther King said, “The real meaning of the movement: that students had faith in the future. That the movement was based on hope, that this movement had something within it that says somehow even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”

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hs-minnijean-brown-trickeMinnijean Brown-Trickey (born September 11, 1941) was one of a group of African-American teenagers known as the “Little Rock Nine.” Brown, along with eight others (Thelma Mothershed, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray, Jefferson Thomas, Melba Pattillo, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Daisy Bates, and Ernest Green) faced down an angry mob and helped to desegregate Central High on September 25, 1957, under the gaze of 1,200 armed soldiers. Brown-Trickey was later suspended in 1957 due to an incident in which her bowl of chileckfordphotoi was spilled on a white student in the cafeteria; she was expelled in February 1958 after verbally abusing a white female student, even though the girl had provoked her beforehand. After living in Canada for much of her adult life, Brown-Trickey has returned to Little Rock to continue to pioneer civil rights.

During the Sojourn trips, Minnijean conducts a class in Little Rock, Arkansas, on tolerance, bigotry, hate groups, and the ongoing struggle for social justice. Her firsthand experience with blatant racial hatred is uniquely poignant, and as a lifelong activist, Brown-Trickey is able to articulate the encounter with clarity and perspective. Her testimony not only exposes students on a Sojourn to the effects of injustices of the past, but also serves as a noteworthy example of how they can act to prevent future intolerance and discrimination. Students discuss how to develop personal action plans to face intolerance in themselves, their families, their schools and neighborhoods.

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Fannie Lou Hamer  was an American voting rights activist and civil rights leader. She was instrumental in organizing Mississippi Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became the Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, attending the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in that capacity. Her plain-spoken manner and fervent belief in the Biblical righteousness of her cause gained her a reputation as an electrifying speaker and constant champion of civil rights. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Fannie Lou Hamer on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
In 1962, even though many were warned to appeal if they were assembled to vote by an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and an associate of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Hamer was the first to volunteer. Black people who registered to vote in the South faced serious hardships at that time due to institutionalized racism, including harassment, the loss of their jobs, physical beatings, and lynchings. Hamer later said, “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they [white people] could do was kill me, and it seemed they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”

This is just one example of her bravery. In  1963, Hamer was on her way back from Charleston, South Carolina with other activists from a literacy workshop. Stopping in Winona, Mississippi, the group was arrested on a false charge and jailed by white policemen. Once in jail, Hamer and her colleagues were beaten savagely by the police, almost to the point of death. Released on June 12, she needed more than a month to recover. Though the incident had profound physical and psychological effects, Hamer returned to Mississippi to organize voter registration drives, including the “Freedom Ballot Campaign”, a mock election, in 1963, and the “Freedom Summer” initiative in 1964.
She was known to the volunteers of Freedom Summer – most of whom were young, white, and from northern states – as a motherly figure who believed that the civil rights effort should be multi-racial in nature.

Hamer continued to work in Mississippi for the Freedom Democrats and for local civil rights causes. She ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965, and was then seated as a member of Mississippi’s legitimate delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1968, where she was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. She continued to work on other projects, including grassroots-level Head Start programs, the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Hamer died of breast cancer on March 14, 1977, at the age of 59 at a hospital in Mound Bayou, Mississippi and is buried in her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi. Her tombstone reads, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired”.

 

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