This week marks a pivotal moment in our country’s history of personal liberty: the admittance of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi.
On Oct. 1, 1962, Meredith, who would later earn a law degree from Columbia University, took his place as the first black student at Ole Miss. Only the presence of 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 U.S. border guards and 97 federal prison guards sent by Attorney General Robert Kennedy protected his right that was once denied him because of nothing more than his skin color.
Meredith’s courage destroyed a core belief of white supremacy: that blacks were inferior people and thus incapable of attending such august institutions as Ole Miss. His victory was a victory for all Americans who believe that this country is at its best when it lives up to its values of freedom and equality of opportunity.
Meredith’s moment is worthy of celebration and contemplation. We have come far as a nation, but the road continues.
I can’t think of a more troubling fact than that almost 50 years after the integration of one of the South’s most prestigious centers of higher learning, more black teenage males are on the school-to-prison track than the school-to-university track.
There remains an achievement gap among the races. The Schott Foundation for Public Education reports that fewer than half of all black males graduate from high school. By eighth grade, just 8 percent of black males are “proficient in reading.”
The achievement gap is the driver of the school-to-prison train, according to University of California professor David Kirp.
“Nationwide, [black males] are twice as likely to be left back or assigned to dead-end special education and three times as likely to be kicked out of school as white males,” he noted in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed. “All too often they’re on what educators privately dub ‘the prison track.’”
Personal responsibility is a timeless truism that is hollow when echoing off the walls of torn schools full of tired minds. A child can bring to school a sense of personal duty to be educated, but that child has no control over his economic circumstances. Nor can a child be expected to provide stability to unstable homes and dangerous neighborhoods.
For public school children in poor urban and rural communities, places hit hard by recession, classrooms are depleted of resources, children are stripped of any joy of learning, and teachers are flogged by pundits and dogged by wonks.
From the nonsense of No Child Left Behind to President Obama’s badly flawed “Race to the Top” — forcing states to grub for cash as if Monty Hall was the education czar — the last 10 years of public education has been a brutal slog down the valley of drill-and-skill, high-stakes testing hell.
Until we recognize that all of our children are teachable, and that all have an equal right to a decent education, the path that James Meredith and other American heroes blazed will not be completed.
Fred McKissack is a former managing editor of Rethinking Schools publication. He lives in Fort Wayne, Ind. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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