Dr. King’s Practical View on Education

Published February 1, 2005

I monitor quarterly educational reports on the achievement of black students. While there is some progress, we’re moving at a slow pace when it comes to closing the educational gap between black and white students. Yet there isn’t nearly enough outcry about the failures of our local students, just as there isn’t a stronger demand for accountability. Both need to change.

The month of December ends a year-long national celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legally ended racially segregated public schools. Brown was the case that overruled the “separate but equal” language in Plessy v. Ferguson.

Unfortunately, Brown got the law right but fell short on the implementation. Integration should have been a result rather than a goal. Instead, it became the sole end and took nearly a decade to implement. While integrating schools was a slow process, attempts to equalize them still haven’t come to fruition.

In all my opportunities to speak at meetings or on panels, the single message I want to leave is that obtaining a quality education is the number one civil rights issue before the black community.

The irony is that the unequal situation that had been operating in the south 50 years ago is now occurring in the northern states. Yet if the concern for failing schools in Chicago could be raised to just half of the level of concern put forth over things like the presidential election, more of our students would be finishing high schools and going on to colleges and universities.

With Martin Luther King’s birthday coming in January, we will be reciting Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But maybe we should set the dream aside and remember the reality of our educational system instead.

Before becoming the civil rights crusader, Dr. King had received a Ph.D. by the age of 26. There is an important lesson here for us all: to fight for your dreams, you must be equipped to do battle. In fact, King himself said, “The discrimination of the future will not be based on race, but on education. Those without education will find no place in our highly sophisticated, technical society.”

Occasionally, I have the opportunity to serve as a substitute teacher in one of the most challenged schools in the Chicago system for young boys. Having just celebrated its 75th anniversary, it is a model of what a small school can accomplish with a truly concerned principal and dedicated teachers, producing measurable results.

As a retired corporate individual who hasn’t made a career out of standing in front of a classroom, I truly enjoy being there because it reminds me how important education is and how success can be had. No matter how tight a budget is or how adamant unions may be about fighting any plan that doesn’t keep the status quo, quality education must remain on the front burner. It must be demanded not just by politicians, but by the parents whose children have the most at stake.

Today, all students wanting to attend the University of Illinois who come from families with incomes below the federal poverty level will receive grants to cover the full cost of a college education. In return, all that is asked is that the student work 10 hours per week at jobs on campus. We must let our young people know of these opportunities and explain to them how important education is.

For Dr. King’s dream to happen, we need to educate our children by making quality schools with easy access a reality for kids of every color. Once that happens, there will be a real reason to celebrate the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Lee H. Walker ([email protected]) is is president of The New Coalition for Economic and Social Change and a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. This essay was published by the Chicago Defender on December 24, 2004.