The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

PettusIn December 2000, I accompanied a group of students from Minnesota on a trip to visit historic sites in Alabama and Georgia that were meaningful to the Civil Rights Movement.   We spent one night in Selma, AL and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, recalling the courage and fear of the persons, both individually and as a collective, who marched on Sunday, March 7, 1965 and picturing the police force waiting on the other side of the bridge who were directed to keep the march from advancing.  We asked ourselves would we be willing to join the march two days later on March 9 knowing of the violence that had transpired.  It was a haunting experience for our group. 

With the release of the movie Selma I have recounted those steps and the significance of that march in connection with something that I have heard repeatedly from leaders in schools, government, and private and public organizations that “Education is the civil rights issue of our time.”   The Pettus Bridge should be a powerful image in the fight for equitable education for all by imagining the unstoppable momentum of so many who are crossing the bridge; the educators and leaders working tirelessly for educational equality in impoverished communities and the students and families who are determined for an education that leads to greater opportunity.  

Yet in this civil rights issue of our time, there is confusion between the marchers on the bridge and the restraining force that has assembled on the other side of the bridge to stop progress.  Instead of standing strong against economic poverty as the brutal force, separate camps with different ideologies are ready to battle one another first.  There are some who perceive unions as the impenetrable barrier and others who believe that charter schools are the adversary; some who make a stand against corporate America and others who clash with the public school system; some who say that those who push for achievement are holding back justice and others who say that those who push for justice are holding back achievement; experienced teachers who see inexperienced teachers as unprepared and idealistic and the latter who see the former as out-of-touch and incompetent.  Yet, if you asked any of these groups, they all certainly believe they are part of the march.  

We have unfortunately narrowed our bridge and in doing so have missed an opportunity to mobilize persons and resources.  I know that it is easier to overlook politics, economics and social dynamics when you look back on the events of March 1965 because we know how the narrative unfolded over the next few years, and I know that there were intense differences of opinion in how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s should mobilize itself.  yet it seems when it came down to it, leaders of all camps respected their common purpose and became a greater force together.    

At our Leadership Conference this fall, Jim Ballengee, a teacher at William Penn Charter School and founder of the school’s Center for Public Purpose, highlighted the work of the Allegheny West Consortium in Philadelphia, a private-public partnership between William Penn Charter, Bayard Taylor School, St. James School (a member of the NativityMiguel Coalition), Logan Hope School, Dr. Ethel Allen Promise Academy, Philadelphia University and Temple University. He discussed how this diverse set of neighborhood schools has come together to share the foundational knowledge, skills, programs and practices that will allow all students to become successful in learning and ensure our youth have productive and purposeful lives.  He emphasized that it is incumbent on all of us to reach beyond our school walls and our constituents to work together for the betterment of society.  

Unless we stop the ideological clashes and respect our common purpose, it seems that we are wasting time just to get across the bridge first and be seen as the leader, as the solution.  The Pettus Bridge was just the start of a full march into Montgomery, and our march too has many miles ahead before we reach our destination.  It would be a travesty if this civil rights movement gets stuck on the bridge when there are so many who are ready to  courageously persevere.

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