“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This last week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech.
In this speech, Martin Luther King talked about an integrated society in which black and white children would go to school together. I listened to parts of this speech over 15 times when I was a freshman in Clara Luper’s American History class at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City.
I don’t remember King’s rendition of the speech. I remember the amazing oratory powers of one senior at my high school. He had memorized the speech. In 1983, Clara Luper had a vision – she wanted her black and white students to experience the amazing Civil Rights movement, to realize what a profound achievement it was that we were all sitting side by side learning next to each other, learning with each other, black and white children. She assigned us a class project to reenact the March on Washington, and she chose the perfect young man to act as MLK. I borrowed my friend’s mother’s black dress from the 60’s and several of us met at a park and marched around while Clara Luper’s seniors took video footage of us. Then we marched around on the stage, and he gave his speech to the students at our high school. Everytime I heard him speak the dream, my eyes watered. I was 14.
Clara Luper was the first African-American woman to attend the University of Oklahoma. She told us that she had to sit in a separate section in lecture halls. As a leader in the Civil Rights movement, she organized the restaurant sit-ins in Oklahoma. She taught us American history. The first black Americans arrived in 1619 in Jamestown on a Dutch trading ship. Lyndon Johnson was her favorite president. Clara Luper was ancient when I had her as my teacher, but she was the first teacher I had that made all of her students do history projects, not just the GATE kids. She was the first teacher that I had that made a point to honor her black students, and give them important roles in the classroom, such as Chief Justice, President, Vice-President, and Senator.
When I moved to Oklahoma in 5th grade, I learned what “white flight” was. My parents and I met white people who used racist words to describe black people. I went to the schools that richer white folk fled. I had black teachers and black friends for the first time since preschool in Los Angeles. My public schools in Oklahoma City were around 40% black, with other minority groups sprinkled in. In a state with white flight and in your face racial epithets, I was integrated, and I learned how to speak respectfully to my black teachers. When I go back to OKC, I still see integration. I see black women dating white men, I see ethnically and racially blended children everywhere.
When I started substitute teaching in San Francisco, I was shocked to find out that most schools here serve almost all African American or Latino or Asian students. And there are almost no teachers of color. Where did they all go, I wondered over and over again. I assumed that integration was on a positive upward trajectory ever since the 1980s when I was in an integrated high school, ever since 1954 when schools were desegregated in the south, ever since 1963 when MLK gave his “I have a dream speech”. I could not have been more mistaken. Black students are more likely to go to school with only black students; Latino students are more likely to go to school with only Latino students. Integration is dying.
And it’s not good for any of us. And it’s particularly not good for black kids, Latino kids and poor kids. Here is an article that explains this phenomenon. Thank you, Mr. Rothstein.
Here’s a brief excerpt:
“Social science research for a half century has documented the benefits of racial integration for black student achievement, with no corresponding harm to whites. When low income black students attend integrated schools that are mostly populated by middle class white students, achievement improves and the test score gap narrows.”
With tongue in cheek, I include a quote by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveowner, father of black and white children, and lover of liberty. I wrote a biography report on TJ as a student in Clara Luper’s class, and drew a life-size replica of the man.
“Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.”-Thomas Jefferson