Fifty years ago today, one of the strongest advocates for equality in education and society at large was silenced.
With the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, African-Americans across the country mourned the loss of a man whose voice spoke truth to power and the promise of a better tomorrow for our children and our children’s children.
But the hope for our children to one day be judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” relied heavily on their ability to receive equal access to a quality education.
Throughout the years, remnants of “the dream” have faded in and out of view. We’ve seen an increase in quality school options. There are sporadic decreases in the achievement gap. But disparate discipline rates among Black students, combined with a lack of Black educators and a rampant belief gap, prove how incomplete the dream remains.
You could offer any number of reasons why. But perhaps it’s in part because King’s voice wasn’t the only voice our community lost on that hotel balcony in Memphis. Like the director of a mass choir, he organized and harmonized thousands of other voices to a tune that was impossible to ignore.
And while we’ve achieved various victories over the years, many Black parents, students and educators still feel voiceless and vulnerable to an education system that has historically plagued us with inequity.
So when Education Post invited me to moderate a roundtable discussion specifically about Black education among Black parents, teachers and students, it was truly music to my ears. This unique conversation is captured in a video series in which I and other participants unleash a robust dialogue about why quality schooling is still so hard for Black youth today.
The Essential Role of Black Educators
I moderated one roundtable discussion with 20 African-American teachers from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. During the discussions, the teachers explained that their roles served a much bigger purpose than to simply educate.
They spoke about leaning into their students’ lives and forming the bonds with kids that inspire them to press harder toward their goals, demolishing any excuse for failure.
We didn’t tackle school integration specifically. But most of the participating teachers worked in district and charter schools in Chicago that were more than 95 percent Black—just as racially segregated or perhaps more segregated as they were during the civil rights era.
And some of the sentiments shared were eerily reminiscent of feelings and experiences of Black educators from the ’50s and ’60s.
The fight for freedom through education is a legacy that has been passed down to us by our ancestors, and it still needs to be fought today for our children and grandchildren.
Even before King and the civil rights era, teaching served as one of the on-ramps to the middle class for Black professionals and a source of great dignity and social respect.
Beyond the socio-economic benefits, Black teachers held the promise of political power, and they would partner with clergymen, businessmen and parents in the community to raise up a generation of African-American youth who knew their history and affirmed a collective narrative about our Blackness: We are intellectual. We are beautiful. We are spiritual. We are formidable.
After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, however, White teachers began educating Black children, while Black educators were not hired to teach White students. In fact, tens of thousands of African-American teachers lost their jobs.
This integration experiment, though noble in its cause, backfired on Black people and set us back in unforeseen ways.
Today, Black students are encountering fewer Black role models in schools than existed two generations ago. While 50 percent of public school students are Black, Latino or Asian, 84 percent of all public school teachers are White. That means that there are fewer educators in schools who understand Black culture, know Black history, or share their ancestry.
The Black educators roundtable was a most appropriate and timely opportunity. Despite the loss of King’s voice 50 years ago, the roundtable was a reminder of the strength that still exists among those fighting for the right to an equitable education today.
As you reflect upon the life and legacy of King, watch and listen to Black teachers, parents and students explain what school looks like and feels like for them—and glean ideas on how to make schooling a better experience for those who continue to carry both the beauty and burden of Blackness.