1972 Gary Declaration Was A Call For Equality That Remains Unanswered

May 1, 2024 8:11:52 PM


More than five decades ago, some 10,000 Black leaders gathered for the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. What came to be known as the Gary Convention of 1972 was an inflection point for Black leaders and Black politics. 

Much of the political leadership at the time was a generation that came of age amidst Brown v. Board of Education and rose through the ranks during the march toward the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, the political violence and turmoil of the 1960s, the Great Society, and the counterpunch of White politics in Richard Nixon’s election. 

The goal of the Gary Convention was to address the pressing issues facing Black communities and to formulate a collective vision for the future of Black politics amidst enduring systemic racism and lethal poverty. 

The output of that pivotal gathering was the Gary Declaration—an urgent demand for social, economic, and political equality and a declaration for self-determination and community control for Black America.

This included demands for greater representation in government, an end to police brutality, and equitable access to resources and opportunities. It also included a call for delivering a public education for Black children that enabled them to flourish. (This goal remains a significant struggle in Gary itself, where some students are beating the odds to rise above the broken buildings of a city abandoned by white flight and left to crumble..)

On the failures of American society and its economy to empower Black people, the declaration did not mince words.

“Our cities are crime-haunted dying grounds. Huge sectors of our youth and countless others face permanent unemployment. Those of us who work find our paychecks able to purchase less and less. Neither the courts nor the prisons contribute to anything resembling justice or reformation. The schools are unable or unwilling to educate our children for the real world of our struggles.”

So much of what was said and grappled with at Gary resonates with Black American life today. Too much of what was experienced by those at Gary remains firmly entrenched in Black American life.  We’ve elected a Black President (twice), a Vice President (hopefully twice), and more Black politicians than ever before. However, our people still earn less, live shorter lives, and contend with the weight of a system stacked against them in every facet of their private and public lives, including education. 

The spirit of Gary’s demands reaches for public education that fosters the potential and progresses the purpose of Black children rather than diminishes them both. Today, that can, should, and must take the shape of culturally responsive and effective teaching as well as learning environments that prioritize the dignity, worth, and identities of Black and Brown children. 

When those features are present, the results are powerful: higher graduation rates, a greater sense of belonging, and a more positive life trajectory across a host of metrics, measures, and criteria. 

Too often, however, Black children are not receiving that sort of education or anything like it.  Large majorities of teachers feel unprepared to teach Black and Brown students. Black teachers (especially men) are wildly underrepresented in our schools despite evidence that everyone benefits when there are more Black educators at a school. Black and Brown students attend schools that are underfunded by tens of billions compared to students attended by white students. 

In that reality, the intractability can feel overwhelming, but we have seen that leaders can create meaningful progress on challenges that are hardwired into the system. HBCUs and alternative certification programs produce more teachers of color and teachers with the cultural fluency to serve students of diverse backgrounds effectively. Promising “grow-your-own” programs are helping to create local teaching pipelines that are more diverse and familiar with the lived experience of students and communities. 

But more is required. More is required of us as leaders, educators, parents, community members, and citizens to demand the change our students need to thrive. 

The words of the Gary Declaration here again give us prescient inspiration and perspective. 

“So we come to Gary confronted with a choice. But it is not the old convention question of which candidate shall we support, the pointless question of who is to preside over a decaying and unsalvageable system. No, if we come to Gary out of the realities of the Black communities of this land, then the only real choice for us is whether or not we will live by the truth we know, whether we will move to organize independently, move to struggle for fundamental transformation, for the creation of new directions, towards a concern for the life and the meaning of Man. Social transformation or social destruction, those are our only real choices.

If we are serious, the Black Politics of Gary must accept major responsibility for creating both the atmosphere and the program for fundamental, far-ranging change in America. Such responsibility is ours because it is our people who are most deeply hurt and ravaged by the present systems of society. That responsibility for leading the change is ours because we live in a society where few other men really believe in the responsibility of a truly human society for anyone anywhere.“

For our education to be truly human, for our schools to move beyond the hurt and ravage of history and the present, we need to collectively move toward the strategies and solutions the evidence makes clear that our Black and Brown children need and deserve.

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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