Monday, January 21, 2008

Defaulting on the Promissory Note

Today we set aside regular lessons in our homeschool for a discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for civil rights in this country. As I read Rev. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech to my five year old and explained its meaning to her, it occurred to me that many of those who attended schools named in his honor might not be able to do the same.

Jonathan Kozol gave statistics in his 2005 book The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America about just how segregated schools named for Rev. King or other civil rights heroes such as Thurgood Marshall & Rosa Parks are- typically 96-99% of students are African-American or Latino and most live in poverty. A shamefully large percentage of the students drop out, and many of those who do earn enough credits to graduate struggle to pass exit exams testing 10th grade English and 8th grade math skills. Kozol describes these schools as "tense, disorderly, socially unhappy, and often violent."

Rev. King's speech is filled with complex vocabulary and literary and historical allusions. For example, standing near the Lincoln Memorial he said:

"Fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice."

To understand this passage, one needs to be familiar with Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the terrible conditions existing under slavery. One must also know the definitions of "momentous", "decree", "beacon", "seared", "withering", etc. Without the relevant background knowledge, the passage is not going to make much sense.

For somebody like me who attended one of the best public schools in the state where I grew up, it is easy to grasp. But too many students of color in the U.S. are not receiving the type of education that would permit them to comprehend Rev. King's poetic and inspiring speech. De jure segregation has been replaced by de facto segregation.

It is shameful that over four decades have passed since Rev. King's speech and there still exists in this country such inequality of educational opportunity.

1 comment:

Soutenus said...

Yesterday I watched Rev. King make this speech on You Tube with my 8 year old. I had not heard Martin Luther King's voice in so long (except in sound bites from time to time).
I think HEARING and seeing him give that speech was wonderful. My son and I had talked a lot about what lead up to this speech and things that have happened since. As my 8 year old sat in my lap I felt emotions roll up inside of me that I had suppressed for years. I remembered hearing that speech as a 4 year old on my dad's lap in front of our black and white tv (not live but soon after).
MLK day did something for me this year. It did what, I think, these kinds of national holidays are supposed to do. I remembered, I took time to teach another, I prayed and I was grateful for Rev King and all those who bravely moved us forward a bit.
The struggle continues but it is peacefully fueled by such men.