King's message: a mind is a terrible thing to waste
My friend Staley Keith was telling me about his childhood in North
Carolina – “Jesse country,” he said, “and I don’t mean Jackson.” Staley meant
the North Carolina of Jesse Helms, the outspoken segregationist*** who would
serve five terms in the United States Senate. “Us black kids walked to our
black school every morning and had to go by the white school. They shouted racial obscenities and
threw rocks at us.” No fun,
recalled Staley. But one morning
he woke up to the news that North Carolina schools had to be integrated. And Staley recalls his first thought,
“We gotta go to school with these m-----r f------rs.”
To a large extent, much of the story of American education over these
last fifty years is a story of the failure to understand the complexity of our
country’s relationship to race and the deep consequences of integration. As Jefferson said of
slavery, "[W]e have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor
safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the
Unfortunately, on the ground, in classrooms all over the country, the
interplay between justice and self-preservation has not had happy results for
I once asked another friend of mine, an African American, who grew up
in a small northern town, whether, given the choice, he would send his children
to an all-black school that scored high on the state tests or to an integrated
school with low test scores. And he said, “the integrated school.” He voted for self-preservation; he knew
that the white kids, though less educated, would grow up to run the town and he
wanted his children to know them.
These are some of the Hobbesian choices we have forced on
African-Americans since the 1954 Brown v.
Board of Education decision.
The outcomes for African Americans have been modest at best;
catastrophic at worst. Not just because
of Brown, but because the integration
that Brown demanded coincided with
what has been a prolonged period of educational deterioration.
And this is why I am fond of quoting Martin
Luther King’s cautionary words, from 1959, about Brown:
I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public
accommodation and travel…. I am
for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different.
In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an
individual -- the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large
percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low
view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the
intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.
When I first read those words, in a 2004 New York Times book review by Samuel
Freedman, it was a Eureka moment – to know that the great civil rights
leader appreciated not just the significance of an education but the dangers of
partnering with an education system that was still very much a white-run
institution. The facile assumption
on the part of far too many integrationists is that all blacks needed to do was
rub elbows with whites to get a good education. To put it succinctly, King was right to be suspicious.
It was E.D. Hirsch who first articulated the pedagogical dangers of
this short-sighted notion in his 1987 classic, Cultural
Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Though he is one of the most misunderstood of our modern
education theorists (most educators I know claim to have read him; few have),
one of his great insights was the importance of the difference between a conservative education and the radical or liberal political outcomes that can flow from it. As he wrote early in CL:
The claim that universal cultural literacy would have the
effect of preserving the political and social status quo is paradoxical because
in fact the traditional forms of literate culture are precisely the most
effective instruments for political and social change.
This is one of the core findings of Hirsch’s impressive body of
research these last twenty-five years.
And in those early pages of CL
Hirsch proceeded with a wonderfully counterintuitive reading of The Black Panther, “a radical and
revolutionary newspaper if ever this country had one.” Indeed, after offering long excerpts
from the paper, including a section from the Black Panther Party platform that
quotes verbatim from the Declaration of Independence, though without
attribution, Hirsch writes,
The writers for The
Black Panther had clearly received a rigorous traditional education in
American history, in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance
to the Flag, the Gettysburg Address, and the Bible, to mention only some of the
direct quotations and allusions in these passages. They also received rigorous
traditional instruction in reading, writing, and spelling. I have not found a
single misspelled word in the many pages of radical sentiment I have examined
in that newspaper.
One can find many allusions to classic American and ancient texts in
King’s own writing, testament to the “good” education he received.
Many years before I met Hirsch (for a Life magazine story I wrote in 1991), I stumbled upon a collection
of essays by Richard Stern, a professor of English at the University of
Chicago. (Pity the person who had to be in the same department as Saul Bellow.) The collection was titled, The
Books in Fred Hampton’s Apartment, after a short and brilliant essay on
page 70 that recounted Stern’s visit to the Black Panther leader’s apartment
just after he was gunned down by Chicago police in a predawn raid in December
of 1969. “Violent death does not
make for good housekeeping,” Stern writes, “nor do lawyers, pathologists,
tourists, and guides, but it was clear that this apartment had never been an
idyllic place to either live or die.” But Stern spotted the books, “scattered here and there
in the apartment, some open, as if reading had been interrupted and were to be
resumed the next day,” and noted, “to a bookish man the books changed almost
everything.” Stern writes,
The books in the Monroe Street apartment spoke of
self-improvement, of purposive learning, of curiosity. Here are the titles I
wrote down: Introduction to Embryology; Chabod,
Machiavelli and the Renaissance; James
T. Farrell, The Face of Time; Hannah
Arendt, Imperialism (a paperback
selection from The Origins of
Totalitarianism); Black Rage;
Ashley Montague, The Direction of Human
Development; Linus Pauling, No More
War; Vertebrates; Calculus; Struik, The Origins of American Science; American Political Dictionary….
The list – and Hampton’s violent end – puts a sad exclamation mark on
Hirsch’s sanguine observation about the Panthers
and education. But it also spoke
volumes about King’s prescient observation about the perils of turning young
black minds over to a system that was not only racist (overtly and covertly)
but already in the throes of a new, anti-academic wave, one that would throw
several generations of African-American youth under the school bus.
About the same period, and not far from where Hampton died, a group of
black activists, under the leadership of the Reverend Arthur M. Brazier, was
organizing around much the same premise: self-determination. In his 1969 book, Black
Self-Determination: The Story of the Woodlawn Organization Brazier
History has shown that black people cannot rely on the moral
integrity of organized white society to give power to black people voluntarily.
It must be wrested from that society.
I was lucky enough to meet Brazier in 2010, not
long before he died, at a thrilling Harlem Children’s Zone conclave in
Manhattan, an event crowded with African-Americans, including members of a
presidential administration led by a man who had, finally, wrested power from that
white society. It was enough to
see the gleam in Brazier’s eye to know of his pride. And I was also honored
that that introduction came from Charles Payne, professor of social work at
the University of Chicago and author of So Much Reform, So Little Change: The
Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Payne’s book is brilliant and
should be read by all education policymakers, but today, in honor of Martin
Luther King, I want to call attention to the Epilogue (as
I have done before), where Payne tells the story of William J. Moore,
“grandson of a fugitive slave,” who opened a “first class elementary school” in
West Cape May, New Jersey, for the black “yard men, delivery `boys,’ dockhands,
truck drivers, casual laborers, and factory workers” who serviced the white
tourists of Cape May. This
was the late 19th century and Moore ran his school for 53 years, a
school his father attended. As Payne writes,
When I was a boy, I thought all Black men recited poetry and
prose. When my father got together with his boyhood friends, it was not at all
unusual for someone to start reciting Shakespeare and for someone else to
follow that with some quatrains from the Rubaiyat,
which might be followed by bits of Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon
As Payne concludes,
Mr. Moore and his school were a kind of counternarrative, daily
giving the lie to the narrative of Black intellectual inferiority. At first glance, the issues of contemporary
urban education seem far removed from the world of William Moore and his
children. I’m not sure that’s really true, though. The search for prescriptions
can be dangerous if we let it, but I don’t know that all our work has given us
a better model for educating children from the social margins than William
Moore seems to have had in 1895. Give them teaching that is determined, energetic,
and engaging. Hold them to high standards. Expose them to as much as you can,
most especially the arts. Root the school in the community and take advantage
of the culture the children bring with them…. Recognize the reality of race,
poverty, and other social barriers, but make children understand that barriers
don’t have to limit their lives….
Above all, no matter where in the social structure children are coming
from, act as if their possibilities are boundless.
Unfortunately, too much of the story of school integration for blacks
has been what King predicted: a feast of junk food served up by educators who
have too little respect for the black race, much less “the mind” of their
children. It is one of the least-mentioned
tragedies of King’s assassination – that he could not live to join the
education reform movement and help stamp out the fires of mediocrity that have
burned almost out of control these last 50 years.
In his Times review Samuel
Freedman quotes W.E.B. Du Bois, writing in The
Journal of Negro Education in 1935:
[T]he Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools.
What he needs is Education.
As Don Hirsch told me when I asked how his famously content-rich
curriculum would deal with students’ self-esteem challenges, he smiled, “The
best way to teach children self esteem is by teaching them something.”
The best way to honor Martin Luther King would be to commit ourselves
to delivering that rigorous, comprehensive, and, ultimately liberating
education. Indeed, it would be the
best way to let freedom ring for future generations.
***Said Helms in a 1963 television interview: ''The Negro cannot count
forever on the kind of restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the
streets, disrupt traffic and commerce and interfere with other men's rights.''
See Kevin Sack, the New
****For those who have never seen this quote before, it may need some
explanation. In short, the founders, as we know, lived in a slaveholding
culture and many, like Jefferson, were themselves slaveholders. They live with
the Hobbesian choice: to win freedom from England or throw the young country
into a potentially catastrophic fight over slavery, one of the key economic
bulwarks of the south. The proof of the rightness of Jefferson’s comment came
when Lincoln let go of the wolf’s ear and the nation was thrown into the bloody
catastrophe of the Civil War.