Education is a Civil Right
November 13, 2011
By Dr. David Covin
Education is a Civil Right. Or is it?
This is a critical question. Because we know, according to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, education is supposed to be a civil right. But is it?
Section 1 of the 14th Amendment reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; (and here we come to the equal protection clause) nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
That’s what section 1 of the 14th Amendment says, and what the equal protection clause says. But what do they mean?
In part, they mean what the courts say they mean. And the courts have long said that they apply to public education, that when public education is provided, it must be provided to everyone. Public education is a Civil Right. But we must not be fooled by words or forms. We must examine what these words and forms mean in real life - on the ground, where people live.
What does equal protection of the laws mean with regard to public education? The U.S. Supreme Court provided an answer to that question in 1895, in the Plessy case, when it was looking at a broader issue. The broader issue was this: What does equal protection of the laws mean, in general? Not just in education, not just in schools, but in society at large. The answer the court came up with was a racial answer. Let us be clear about who has played the race card, and how they have played it.
The court said that equal protection of the laws meant that a right granted to the general population was granted to everyone - but not necessarily in the same way. Keep in mind that during this same period, women were not regarded as equals to men, and were not afforded the right to vote. This gendered understanding of citizenship was so taken for granted that the court didn’t even comment on it. It was a given that women did not vote. Period. Voting women was a nonsensical idea. So the right to vote was not assumed to extend to every one - only to men - but the right to ride on public transportation was extended to every one, as was the right to public education.
After establishing who was afforded Civil Rights, the court played the race card and indicated that while everyone had civil rights, race could make a difference with respect to how those Civil Rights were provided. For example, a railroad providing transportation to the general public had to accept anyone as a passenger - but it did not have to provide them the right to the same seats. It could use race as a basis for separating passengers.
A school district which provided public education, had to provide it to everyone. But it did not have to provide them rights to the same schools. It could use race as a basis for separating students.
This doctrine of racial partitioning of the population came to be known as separate but equal. The words said, and the forms said, the opportunity afforded everyone was equal - though race was used as a means to separate people.
Now, let’s be clear. Nobody was fooled by any of this. The courts were just going through the motions. In fact, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had said in the Dred Scott decision 40 years earlier that Black people had “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”
The Court didn’t say that in Plessy, the 14th Amendment prohibited the judges from saying that. Instead, they said, in effect, that all people had rights to the same kinds of services, just not the same quality of services. Though they didn’t say that, everyone knew that’s what they meant because that was the reality. It is what equal protection of the laws meant in fact.
Because Southern states went about implementing laws that enforced what separate but equal meant. The popular name for this system of laws was jim-crow. That trains had to carry both Black and white passengers meant that railroads had to have some places for everybody to sit, including Black people. Not every train, mind you, but some trains had to have somewhere Black people could sit.
In practice this meant that not every train - but some trains - had such cars. The 9 AM and noon trains might have none. But the 2 PM might. It also meant that the car where Black people could sit was usually not a whole car. It was usually half of the men’s smoker, separated from the smokers by a partition which let the smoke drift over into the colored section. Or it was the baggage car. Animals were kept there and all the other baggage. When my mother went South for her aunt’s funeral, she rode in the baggage car where her aunt’s coffin sat on the floor in front of her.
In practice, separate but equal meant that when restrooms were provided, they were often labeled “ladies,” “gentlemen,” and “colored.” As colored were neither ladies nor gentlemen, both genders were expected to use the same restroom.
For pubic schools it meant that in rural areas, the colored school was open no more than 2 - 3 months per year, that the school building was dilapidated and poorly maintained, that the school grounds were - at best - packed dirt, that the supplies were minimal and of poor quality, that the text books were out-of-date, left over from white schools, torn and raggedy.
While I’m talking about this subject, it is important to set the record straight about Black public schools in the segregated South. While it is true that there were some excellent schools and some excellent and dedicated teachers, those characteristics do not accurately represent the whole system of education.
First of all, keep in mind who was running the Black schools. The same people who saw to it that Black people rode on the backs of buses, were not allowed to sit on the ground floor of theaters, who would not serve them inside restaurants, who kept them in bondage through peonage systems, who stole their wages through share-cropping, who regularly raped and lynched them. These were the people in charge of Black public education.
Our popular mythology is that it was better for us when we ran our own schools, but the reality is: We didn’t run our own schools. White people ran our schools, and we did the best we could under their direction.
Make no mistake about it. In the aggregate, Black education under the segregated system was abysmal. Because that is precisely what it was intended to be. Most white people would have preferred that Black people have no education. It had been prohibited under slavery, and as far as they were concerned, the prohibition should have continued. What education does a field-hand need?
Let’s be honest. No matter how skilled and caring you are, no matter how dedicated, how successful are you going to be as a teacher, when over half your students never have enough to eat, when you can’t get the school warm enough in the winter, and can’t mitigate the heat, humidity, and insects in the summer? And for other teachers, how can you teach children something you don’t know yourself?
A friend of mine’s family came from a town in Mississippi where, when the courts finally ordered it to desegregate, the school district demanded that all teachers pass a test certifying them as competent to teach. Needless to say, many of the Black teachers failed the test. One of them, who had taught Black children in the district for over 30 years, generations of students, who was a mainstay of Black education in the town, left the answers to the test blank and walked out of the room. On the top of her page she had written, “Lord help me Geezus.” She had spelled Jesus, G-e-e-z-u-s.
Let’s look at what those schools produced. In WW II, men who were drafted had to take a test to determine if they were qualified to be soldiers. Almost all Black men from the South who took the test, scored in the bottom half. Many of them scored so low they were declared unfit to serve.
There was nothing wrong with their brains. They just hadn’t learned anything in school. Are we to believe that Northern Black men were mentally superior to Southern ones? The very idea is ridiculous. But that’s what the tests seemed to say. I went to school in Illinois and routinely, Black students who came from the South were set back two grades. Routinely. Now, some of them only stayed in those grades a week or two when it became evident they were proficient at their proper grade levels. But most of them stayed two years behind - permanently. Because they really were two years behind. And the older they were when they arrived from the South, the further behind they had become.
Not only that, but Black people couldn’t even go to graduate and professional schools in the South. The states didn’t provide them for Black people. This was separate but equal. No advanced education for Black people. When I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois, in the same entering class as Jesse Jackson, almost all the Black people in the professional and graduate schools were from the South. Because their home states didn’t have any professional and graduate schools for them.
This whole system of law - which required - people to be ranked and separated on the basis of African ancestry, was established and maintained by law. Laws required Black people and white people to ride in separate-colored cabs, not to play baseball games within one block of each other; they forbad Black people from entering pubic parks, zoos, and museums. This was the legal madness which characterized separate but equal.
The U.S. - then - had the same constitution and most of the amendments it still has today. Which guaranteed Civil Rights. Education was a Civil Right then. Or was it?
I think we can safely say, despite the rhetoric, despite the law, despite the forms, it was not. What about now? We have had the Civil Rights Movement. We have had the Black Power Movement. We have a Black President. Surely, now, in the 21st Century, education is a Civil Right. Or is it?
Brown vs. the Board of Education was supposed to take care of that. We now know it did not. The major problem with Brown was that it was a one-size fits all remedy. Public education is too vast and complicated an enterprise for that to be possible. The initial premise underlying the case makes sense: we will never be able to convince white people to provide schools for Black children which are as good as the schools they provide for their own. In fact, the only way for Black children to receive the same quality of education as white children, is to place them in the same schools attended by white children. White people are not so crazy that they will cut off their noses to spite their faces.
Maybe not. But they still proved very resourceful at preserving the lion’s share of resources for their own children.
The best indicators we have of whether the public schools are operating so as to provide education as a Civil Right is to look at the results. That means, yes, test scores - but not only test scores. It means physical plants - but not only physical plants. It means drop out rates, expulsion rates, retention rates, detention rates. It means tardiness rates, absence rates. It means enjoying the school, flourishing, growing.
By every single one of these indicators, and by all of them combined, education is not a Civil Right enjoyed by most Black students. They are not provided, “the equal protection of the laws.”
The same set of circumstances had prevailed under jim-crow. The Constitution and the 14th amendment said that Black people were provided equal protection of the laws. The reality was considerably different.
With respect to the Civil Right of education, we are right back to where we were in 1953, the year before the Brown ruling was handed down.
Emmett Till was still alive. Jim-Crow ruled the South. De facto segregation ruled the North. Most Black people in the country could not vote.
What did it take to change that?
It took - a Civil Rights Movement. It took - the Black Power Movement. Both of them ended 35 years ago.
We do not need to re-invent the wheel. Nor can we turn back the clock. We are not going to see another Civil Rights Movement such as we lived through in my youth. We are not going to see another Black Power Movement such as emerged from the Civil Rights Movement.
That time is gone.
This time is ours.
How are we going to put our mark on it?
We may not be able to repeat the past, but we can learn from it.
One thing we know is we have to be prepared. A lot of people think of the Civil Rights Movement as some kind of spontaneous miracle. But those of us who study it know differently. It might have been a miracle, but it surely wasn’t spontaneous.
By 1954 when the Supreme Court heard Brown, the NAACP had been taking the struggle to the courts for 43 years. Under the editorship of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, the organization’s magazine, The Crisis, had been waging an intellectual struggle, an informational struggle, a propaganda struggle, for 44 years. Ella Baker had gone South as an Assistant Field Secretary for the NAACP in 1941 (14 years before Brown, 15 before the Montgomery Bus Boycott), 20 years before the sit-in movement.
In Montgomery, there had long been an active NAACP chapter, under the leadership of E.D. Nixon. Rosa Parks was the Secretary of that Chapter, she had trained at the Highlander School in Tennessee. Montgomery also had the Women’s Political Council. Nobody else knew it, but Black people in Montgomery knew it, they were ready. They were prepared.
The same thing was true all over the South. Black people had been organizing. The NAACP, The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), local organizations like the Women’s Political Council. Ella Baker had been traveling throughout the South organizing for the NAACP.
Even in the Mississippi Delta there was the Black and Tan Party, the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry with the state NAACP.
That was then - in 1954.
All over the South - they were prepared.
Are we prepared? Well, I don’t know.
But we’ve got something here called the Black Parallel School Board.
We’ve got something here called the Alpha Academy.
We’ve got a chapter of the NAACP.
We’ve got the state office of the NAACP.
We’ve got a chapter of the Urban League.
We’ve got the Roberts Family Development Center.
We Have NIA, women of purpose.
The Sacramento Area Black Caucus.
The 100 Black Men.
The 100 Black Women.
The National Council of Negro Women.
The Black United Fund.
The Sacramento Observer.
The Sacramento Cultural Hub.
The Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce.
The California Black Chamber of Commerce.
Black Employees United for Equality.
Blacks in Government.
The Talking Drum.
The Men’s Civic Improvement Club
I could stand here another twenty minutes listing the Black organizational infrastructure in Sacramento. We’ve got sororities, fraternities, health organizations, arts organizations, environmental organizations, professional associations.
Are we prepared? I’d say we’re about to find out.
Another thing we can learn from the past is that this is serious business.
It’s not playtime.
As the Thelonious Monk song says, “Straight - No Chaser.”
And as we used to say in my days, “We laugh and we joke, but we do not play.”
This - is serious business.
It cost the NAACP tens of thousands of dollars to push Brown through the courts.
This will not be a cost-free venture.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott required buying lots of gas to fill up the cars that were transporting Black people who used to ride the buses. It also required the hiring of taxi companies. And insurance. They went to Lloyd’s of London to get insurance. It required bail. Dr. King and others went to jail in Montgomery and they weren’t even demonstrating.
There’s no question that compared to 1955, we’ve got the money - even if we are in a recession. Black people in the 1950s were in a permanent depression. As bad off as we are now financially, we’re in high cotton compared to what we were in 1955. We’ve got the money. The question is, will we spend it? Are we willing to put our money where our mouth is?
Serious business means not only money.
It means what else are you willing to put down?
In Montgomery people were fired.
Had their mortgages canceled.
Their car-loans called in.
Arrested on trumped up misdemeanor charges.
Dr. King’s home was fire-bombed.
Rev. Herbert Lee was murdered.
In the Civil Rights Movement, Medgar Evers was murdered. Viola Liuzu was murdered. Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered.
James Meredith was shot down in the highway.
John Lewis was beaten beyond recognition.
They don’t do that any more. They’ve got other tactics.
They talk to us. They mean - but they don’t say - when they talk to us, this is what they mean, but don’t say.
“You are a smart Negro.
“You don’t belong with those ordinary Negroes.
“They haven’t got good sense.
“But you do.
“Why don’t you come over to our side?
“Where you belong.
“We’ll take good care of you.”
They don’t shoot us over the schools any more. They don’t knock the teeth out of our mouths.
They buy us off.
What are you - willing to put down?
Your physical well-being?
What have you got in you?
If you want to make education a Civil Right, you’ve got to be willing to lay it all on the line. Because - nobody - is just going to give it to you.
In fact, they’ll take it away from you, while pretending to do you a favor.
What are you made of?
If you’re serious about this, we’ll find out.
Another thing we’ve learned is we have to find some way to work together, some kind of coordinating council.
For the Montgomery Bus Boycott the participants established the Montgomery Improvement Association, the MIA. Its sole function was to run the boycott. The other participating organizations such as the Women’s Political Council and the local NAACP, did not cease to exist. Instead, their work in the boycott was carried out through the MIA.
The Southern Christian Leadership Council, SCLC, under the leadership of Dr. King, operated as the lead organization for the Civil Rights Movement. It was not an umbrella organization. It was not the only organization. The other organizations did not shrivel up and die. They did not go away. They frequently did their own things. They often even opposed the SCLC. But when the organizations acted in concert, the SCLC usually took the lead. SNCC, CORE, COFO, the NAACP, the Birmingham Human Rights Council, the Urban League, the Welfare Rights Organization, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, specific regional and local organizations all over the country were not paper organizations, they didn’t just roll over and play dead. They had their own agendas and they actively pursued them. But when it was time to get on the bus, they got on it and rode, with the SCLC in the driver’s seat.
Another lesson we’ve got to learn is the need for perseverance. We’ve got to be in it for the long-haul. Ella Baker got into it in the 1930s - the Civil Rights Movement didn’t really get untracked until 1955 - 20 years later. That’s when it really started picking up steam. Its major accomplishments weren’t realized until 15 years after that. For thirty-five years she’d been in the struggle. Dr. King was only in it for 15 years - but he died in it. It took his life.
It wounded Jimmy Travis
It wounded Charlie Ware
The numbers beaten were countless.
It killed Herbert Lee
Sammy Young, Jr.
Addie Mae Collins
The struggle killed El Hajj, Malik-El Shabbaz, (better known as Malcolm X). It killed Little Bobbie Hutton, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark.
It killed ... too many to name.
And there was no guarantee that any of that - or all of that sacrifice would pay off. People were killed never seeing the victory of the movement. But that didn’t matter. They knew what they were struggling for, and they knew the struggle was righteous.
Their deaths ... did not end the struggle. As long as others lived. For they, too, were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice.
The movement didn’t win every battle. Lots of times it lost.
The 1968 Democratic party Convention.
Local struggles all over the country - went down to defeat.
But defeats ... didn’t stop the struggle.
Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, we shall not be moved.
We are soldiers, in the army, we have to fight, before we have to die.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
We have to have a long range perspective, and no matter how gloomy things look, we’ve got to keep on - keepin’ on.
This is our call to duty. All we have to do ... is look at the evidence, and we can see, that in 2010, in the United States of America, and in Sacramento, California, for African descended people, education ... is not a Civil Right.
What if they told you, you couldn’t use the drinking fountain in the lobby of city hall, you had to go around the corner and drink from the one on the outside, at the back of the building? What - if every time you tried to register at a hotel desk, they told you, there was no room in the inn. What if they told you, you couldn’t use the restroom in the County Courthouse, that there was one for you in the basement. And not to worry, you could use it if you were a man or a woman. What if they told you, you had to wait until an airplane came along that had seats in the back for your people.
Oh, I bet you’d get an attitude. You might tell them about all your degrees. You might tell them about all the positions you’ve held. You might hoop and holler about how you weren’t going to let anyone do that to you.
They’re doing it to our children every day. They’re doing something one hundred times worse than any of that to our children, every day. What are we doing about it?
If we want education in Sacramento to be a Civil Right for our children, we have to make it one.
Right now ... the question is not how? Right now, the question is ... will we? Because if our answer is yes, we will find a way.
Once we decide to open the door, whether we use a key, pry it off its hinges, or kick it in, nobody is going to keep us out. When we’ve got it open, the light will shine through, and show us the way.
These children, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, will no longer stand in the darkness - but will seize their birthright, and step into the light of learning.
This ... little light of mine ... I’m ... gonna let it shine!
Let it shine.
Let it shine.
Let it shine.