Thankful for A Living Past and a Future Hope

…Sing a song, full of the faith that the dark past has taught us

Sing a song, full of the hope that the present has brought us

Facing the rising sun, of a new day begun

Let us march on ‘til victory is won.

…. From, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, 1900 [The Black National Anthem]

 [Beautifully sung here by the group Acappella – http://youtu.be/F0XJPUA5xdI]

As a child, I learned to stand up for the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner”, but as a black child, I also learned to remain standing for the singing of the song that always followed it at any important gathering in our community: “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”  Whenever I hear it, it reminds me how important the past is to the future.

I’ve spent a good portion of the Thanksgiving holiday looking backward and forward. I’ve split my time between reading the last book written by Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr, Where Do We Go From Here and preparing to receive final projects from my freshmen composition students who’ve been studying his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and doing historical analysis of the Mississippi Delta over the past 50 years.

After watching the documentary, “The Children’s March” about the events in Birmingham in 1963, my students shared their discoveries on our class website. They were especially impressed by the role that young people played on the front lines of the civil rights campaigns.

A.K, “I found most interesting about the documentary was that the children were brave, and courageous to fight  for what they believed.  And the youngest child was four years old in jail!   No matter what the police did to them it, did not break them to give up for equal rights in Birmingham, AL.  I did not know that the Children’s march jumpstarted other marches in the civil rights movements.  I always thought the state of Mississippi had the most racist and violent towns, not in towns in Alabama. “

S.K., “The thing that intrigued me was how impervious they were to the blatant discrimination. These were children, need I mind you, who stood against dogs, water-hoses, and etc. My questions to my fellow classmates are, ‘Why is this the first time that we have been made aware of the fact that these were children? Do you think that the truth has been unmentioned or brushed aside for a reason?’ ”

Their discussions have been vibrant and genuine, and as a teacher of composition and rhetoric, it is exactly what I want to see my students doing with their thinking and language skills.  Several students noted Dr. King’s use of empathy as a powerful persuasive technique. He frequently used vivid images and specific details to help his audience understand what it was like for Black people to have lived under segregation for almost 100 years since the legal end of slavery, and why the need to end it was so urgent.

 “It is impossible for white Americans to grasp the depths and dimensions of the Negro’s dilemma without understanding what it means to be a Negro in America” (Where Do We Go From Here, Kindle location 1330).

As my students worked together on their analysis of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of them, a thoroughly Southern young white man, looked at me incredulously and asked, “Why were they so afraid of integration? What was the big deal?”  On one hand, it made me smile that he looked at the segregationist attitudes of the older generation as one might some quaint antique curio. At the same time, it concerns me that he and others think those attitudes, philosophies, and their very real consequences are completely gone from our society.

Unlike many others, Dr. King recognized that racism in America was not just the twisted thinking of a misguided or evil fringe group. As King documents in his book, and as any true student of American history knows, racism was developed and perpetuated over generations with the resources and collaboration of the most powerful institutions and leaders of this nation.

Generally we think of white supremacist views as having their origins with the unlettered, underprivileged, poorer-class whites. But the social obstetricians who presided at the birth of racist views in our country were from the aristocracy: rich merchants, influential clergymen, men of medical science, historians, and political scientists from some of the leading universities of the nation. (Where Do We Go From Here, Kindle Location 1211)

Education is not just the civil rights issue of this generation; it has been at the heart of the struggle for equal rights in this country since the Emancipation. King understood the perverse connection between racism and poverty in America. I imagine many  modern educators and reformers sold on the so-called “culture of poverty” mythology would be stung by King’s precise 1967 analysis:

The schools have been the historic routes of social mobility. But, when Negroes and others of the underclass now ask that schools play the same function for them, many within and outside the school system answer that the schools cannot do the job. They would impose on the family the whole task of preparing and leading youngsters into educational advance….Whatever pathology may exist in Negro families is far exceeded by this social pathology in the school system that refuses to accept a responsibility that no one else can bear and then scapegoats Negro families for failing to do the job. (Where Do We Go From Here, Kindle location 2800).

In 1967, Dr. King put forward a vision for American education that is remarkably similar to the ones put forward by teacher leaders (myself included) in 2011 [Teaching 2030:What We Must Do For Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future].  For example, he supported the proposal of sociologist Max Wolff for the development of “educational parks,” which would bring together “a multiplicity of teaching specialists and superb facilities” rather than continuing to “balkanize America into white and black schools and communities” (Where Do We Go From Here, Kindle location 2839). The federal government, he urged, should “move from supporting the fringes of education to supporting the basics—the teachers and the facilities with which they work.”  Today, many argue that the Federal government is overreaching its role in public education. I contend, however, like Dr. King, that our national leaders have not done nearly enough;  they have left too much unfinished, underfunded work, too many under-enforced civil rights laws, and too many unfulfilled promises.

It’s sobering and encouraging to watch as my students, for whom the events of 1963 are distant and new, realize what it meant to live through the tremendous changes that have shaped our nation. Meanwhile, Dr. King’s prophetic words remind me that many of the problems we now face are not new, and had we been paying attention, not unexpected. This is one reason history matters so much; otherwise, we’ll think the political and educational reform battles of today started with us, or blame individuals when the roots and causes go systemically deeper—as do the solutions.