Fifty-two years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a grimy jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama and composed what would become “one of the most iconic documents of the civil rights movement.”
Letter from Birmingham Jail is one of my favorite of Dr. King’s writings. The letter was a response to white ministers who chastised Black civil rights protestors and urged them to stop demonstrating. King’s 1963 letter lays out in the most dynamic prose why protesting segregation in Birmingham – a stronghold of virulent racism and Jim Crow laws – was neither “unwise” nor “untimely.”
As a writer, I am struck at the skillful way Dr. King answers the criticism leveled, using secular and spiritual references, and crafting a piece of writing both fiery and constrained. As an insistent voice for racial equity and justice in education, I am struck by how much the white clergy in Letter from Birmingham Jail resemble white education activists.
Dr. King created a seminal work of the Black civil rights era. Almost 7000 words castigating white silence. A letter that continues to inform and inspire.
My Dear Fellow Education Activists:
Today, urban school closures are ripping apart Black communities. Black students are expelled at a rate three times higher than white children. Black children are less likely to be in well-funded, well-resourced schools and more likely to be taught by inexperienced, under-prepared teachers.
All of this is well known. Yet your attention stays riveted on ESEA bills, Common Core, and a multitude of priorities and projects. When activists of color endeavor to bring racial inequalities and unjust practices to the forefront of education advocacy, we are routinely scorned, rejected or ignored.
Why do you continue to trot out tired tropes about “colorblind education” and reverse racism when we call for more teachers of color and bilingual teachers? How can you continue to shirk responsibility for eliminating racial disparities in education? There’s no defense for refusing to make racial equity and social justice the focus of all education and policy discussions when children of color are the majority in public schools.
And please tell me. When is the right time to make the school-to-prison-pipeline the central and pivotal issue in education activism? Nationally, six out of every 1,000 students were referred to law enforcement agencies in the 2011-12 school year. Black and Latino and special-needs children are being pushed out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system for kicking a trash can. Delivered by schools into the waiting arms of the courts and police – the same police that kill Black children playing with toy guns.
It is distressing to think that these grave conditions confronting our children of color don’t rise to a level of prominence on your activism docket. So I must conclude that children of color are merely props for you to further your agenda. Not the protagonists in your education story who will be victorious.
What should disturb your conscience and impel you to act renders you disinterested. One day education will recognize its real heroes.
Yours for the cause of fundamental equity and change,
Melinda D. Anderson