Dr. King's Legacy of Equal Education Echoes in the Voices of Today's Black Teachers

Apr 4, 2018 12:00:00 AM


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 [pullquote position="right"]King’s voice wasn’t the only voice our community lost on that hotel balcony in Memphis.[/pullquote] 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. https://www.facebook.com/BetterConversationBetterEducation/videos/768153096716721/ 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. Worse, studies have shown that White teachers generally hold lower expectations for Black and Latino students than they do for White students, though this is not true for Black teachers. 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.

Marilyn Rhames

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” She is currently on the design team for Harvard University's Leaders' Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE). Marilyn has 14 years experience teaching in Chicago Public Schools, but before becoming an educator Marilyn worked as a journalist for People and Time magazines and for newspapers including New York Newsday and The Journal News. She currently writes for Education Post and has published pieces in the Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and RealClearEducation. Marilyn was named 2013 Commentator/Blogger of the Year by the Bammy Awards for her Education Week blog, entitled “Charting My Own Course." She was a 2016 Surge Institute Fellow and a Teach Plus teaching policy fellow from 2010-1012. Through her consulting firm Rhames Consulting, Marilyn offers a full range of services from education content editing to providing professional development on community engagement to public speaking on issues of faith, race, writing, and education. Marilyn has served as an education commentator on 90.1 FM Moody Radio Chicago; the presenter of a 2013 TEDx talk entitled “Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo”; and a 2017 speaker at the Yale University Education Leadership Conference. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master’s degree in education from National Louis University. Marilyn is a wife and mother of three. In August 2017, she came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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