Poor, Black Students Struggling For Decent Education Are Evidence the Civil Rights Movement Never Ended


The following is an excerpt from  In Search of the Movement by Benjamin Hedin (City Lights, 2015): 

The American civil rights movement, I was always taught, was a moment in time, something that happened in the middle of the last century, went on for about a decade and a half, and then stopped. That’s how many courses in high school and college treat it, and it’s also how the movement is normally portrayed on television. First there was Rosa Parks’s arrest in 1955 and a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Over the next decade, plenty of demonstrations were staged, some eliciting reprisals in the form of tear gas, dogs, and fire hoses. There was a march on the nation’s Capitol, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech; some important legislation was passed; and finally, in 1968, King was shot and it all petered out. Short form, that’s the story. It has a clear beginning and a clear ending. I never questioned this narrative, and while it is tempting to add, “despite having received a fair amount of education,” it was my education, after all, the courses I had taken, the movies I watched, that had introduced me to and reinforced that story. It was all I knew.

A few years ago, however, I met David Dennis, who had been one of the leaders of the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964, or Freedom Summer, as it is commonly known. I was then writing the outline for a documentary set during Freedom Summer, and reading books about that time, when hundreds of college-age volunteers, most of them white, traveled to Mississippi. In those days the state was regarded by many as the most intractable bastion of segregation. Its schools had not complied with the Brown v. Board of Education decision issued a decade earlier, and African Americans were prohibited, and often violently, from participating in elections. They didn’t vote, and they didn’t vote because they weren’t allowed to register to vote. Civil rights leaders thought Mississippi would change only if the federal government intervened, and one way—perhaps the best way—of earning the government’s attention was to bring in the volunteers, the sons and daughters of America’s wealthiest and most influential families.

During my research I found out that David Dennis was now head of the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project, a nonprofit created by Robert Moses, who had also helped coordinate Freedom Summer. Through a variety of programs, the Algebra Project tries to improve the education of students whose scores fall in the lowest-performing quartile on standardized tests, a demographic that is largely black and Hispanic. One place where they had established a residency was Summerton, South Carolina, in the same school district where Briggs v. Elliott, the first of the five cases combined in the Brown suit, originated. And that intrigued me, two former directors of Freedom Summer gathered at such a site. What were they doing, and what were their assessments of history? There had to be something there, I thought. I wrote to David and his wife, Nancy, saying I would like to learn more about the work of the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project, and possibly make it subject of a magazine story. Only they were not based in Summerton, as I had believed, but spending most of their time in Petersburg, Virginia. If you want to learn more, said David, come to Petersburg. I was slightly disappointed, for now, I concluded, the conceit of the story was lost, yet I nevertheless made plans to visit them in Virginia.

I need not have been disappointed—at least, not about the story. If I was looking for a link to the past, specifically the Brown case, I soon found that and much else. The public schools in Petersburg bore all the usual signs of failure. Accreditation was rare; the turnover of teachers and administrators was high. The district had a minimum of funding and no way to acquire more. Nearly all of the students I saw were African American, as most of the whites in the area attended private academies. The problem, in David and Nancy’s eyes, was so vast that everyone had to be involved for a correction to occur, not only the parents, school board and teachers, but Petersburg’s churches and businesses too. It was like the 1960s, Dennis said, when the vote was being lobbied for, and he would go from door to door, making new contacts and apprising them of their rights under law. There were other similarities. Fifty years ago in Mississippi, he told me, “People wanted to vote, register; they wanted to participate in the structure of this country. The opposition was saying things like, ‘Actually they don’t want to register to vote.’ They were getting someone from the plantation who said, ‘No sir, I don’t want to vote, I don’t know what that’s all about.’ And this whole issue around education is so similar. The word is, these kids don’t want to learn, these kids can’t do this work, and we feel that we have to do something whereby the kids can actually have a voice to say, ‘We do want to learn, we can do this work.’”

This comment convinced me to go and see Robert Moses and learn more about the Algebra Project’s connection to the civil rights movement. The organization was started in 1982, the year Moses’s eldest child, Maisha, entered middle school, and Moses noticed something troubling about her math classes. Generally the school’s minority and poor students were being ushered out of the college track, and the education they received was, from one point of view, worthless, since it was hard to see it leading anywhere but to a service job. Moses designed the Algebra Project to counteract that trend, to find ways of giving students who might otherwise be written off the training they need to enter college and succeed when they get there. It’s grueling work. Moses spends a lot of time in America’s worst schools, encountering “sharecropper education,” to use a phrase he coined. It means lackluster education, dead-end education, and evokes the sort of schooling that black Mississippi farmers—sharecroppers—received in the 1960s. Few of the schools were adequate. Classrooms were crowded and textbooks scarce, and older students could only attend for a handful of days, since they were needed in the fields. The system’s purpose, insofar as it had one, was to ensure the preservation of an underclass.

There is one episode in particular Moses likes to recall from that time. In 1963 he was arrested while leading a voter registration drive in Greenwood, Mississippi. For black Mississippians, any attempt to register back then was mainly a symbolic gesture. The powers that be, the police or registrar, would close the courthouse office before your turn came, or, when you announced you wanted to register to vote, they would ask you to read and interpret a passage of the state constitution. At the hearing following his arrest, the judge asked Moses why he kept bringing illiterate sharecroppers down to the courthouse, where he knew a literacy test awaited that few of Greenwood’s blacks could expect to pass. “We told him, in effect, the country couldn’t have its cake and eat it too,” Moses has written. “The nation couldn’t deny a whole people access to education and literacy and then turn around and deny them access to politics because they were illiterate.”

For this reason, Moses said, education was always “the subtext” to the quest for the vote. The two were inextricably tied, and once the ballot was gained, they would still be there, the legion of the uneducated, and sooner or later what was subtext would instead become central or primary. “One way to think about the civil rights movement,” I once heard him remark, “was that we got Jim Crow out of three distinct areas of the national life. We got it out of public accommodations; we got it out of the right to vote.” Here he was referring to two landmark pieces of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made segregation illegal, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which abolished literacy requirements and poll taxes and other loopholes formerly used to keep blacks out of the polling booth. I waited for the inevitable completion of the trinity, for him to say, “and we got it out of the schools” and to join those two bills with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. But that is not what he did. Instead he continued, “and we got it out of the national Democratic Party,” and went on to describe the concluding act of Freedom Summer, when the movement brought its own political party to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and demanded that its delegates be seated on the convention floor. That demand was not met, but 1964 would be the last Democratic convention with an all-white delegation from the South.

“We did not get it out of education,” Moses said. “That is the big unfinished job of the civil rights movement.”

The more I talked with Moses and Dennis, the more my understanding of the civil rights movement began to change. Five decades ago they had been partners, teaming on the very difficult task of registering African Americans to vote in the Deep South, and they are still partners today, addressing the as yet unfinished job of securing equality in America’s schools. Many days, they both remarked to me, their work feels the same now as it did then. I had always summoned the movement in grainy black and white, in the frames of old newsreels, but now I wondered if it truly was the province of the past and the past alone. Why did the form the civil rights movement took in the 1950s and 60s have to be the only possible one? And had I been conditioned to believe—as I think many whites have—that the struggle was finished with passage of legislation like the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, that the end of Jim Crow also meant the end of the movement?

I needed to speak with another member of the old guard, to hear the views of someone else who had participated in those iconic campaigns of the 1960s. I reached out to Julian Bond, who had been director of communications for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which was one of the most important civil rights groups of the time. Later Bond served as president of the NAACP, and, more to the point, he has been teaching the history of the civil rights movement for the past thirty years. If there was anyone who could help me understand the ways I was starting to question the standard account of things, it would be him. What do you tell your students? I asked.

“I say that it continues on and on,” he answered. “I don’t tell them that King got killed and it ended. When I began teaching and talked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the organization that ran it was still going, the Montgomery Improvement Association. The president was alive, and they still carried on activity. The movement is not something that happened way back then; I may start talking about it in a way-back-then period, but I tell them it’s going on in the current time.”

And if no ending can accurately be placed, the same can be said for the beginning, as there is no precise dawn of the civil rights movement. Any glance at history will show that the tensions and techniques that defined the 1950s and ’60s were not new. Before there was a bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955, there was one in Baton Rouge in 1953; and before there was one in Baton Rouge in 1953, there was one in Harlem, in 1933. The Freedom Rides of 1961 were modeled on an earlier demonstration, one staged in 1947 and dubbed the Journey of Reconciliation. And read this:

It appears that three negro men entered a Walnut streetcar, going uptown, and refused to leave the same at the request of the driver. Acting under the positive rules of the company, the driver would proceed no further until the negroes left the car. This they refused to do, saying that they had a right to ride in any public conveyance, and that the present was as good a time as any to test such rights of theirs. By this time a large crowd had gathered around the car, the negro element largely predominating, and threatening demonstrations were made against the driver and the whites in general . . . This action on the part of these negroes bears every appearance of being a preconcerted attempt to test the right of the city railway corporations to forbid the riding of negroes or colored men on their cars. 

Our instinct would be to date this passage to the 1960s, when such protests were routinely directed at white-only lunch counters and movie theaters and bus depots. Yet the above report was filed on October 31, 1870, in Louisville, Kentucky. Demonstrations similar to the one described occurred at the start of Reconstruction in New Orleans and Charleston as well. In all three cities African Americans won the right to ride on streetcars, and in Charleston, incidentally, the turning point came once an older black woman— Mary P. Bowers—refused to give up her place in the car and was rudely taken off. The story of her defiance is not so dissimilar, in the end, from that of Rosa Parks.

I am not trying to make a case for equivalence, and do not wish to convey the impression that I believe history to be the same across all eras. Examples of sit-ins can be found in Louisville in 1870 and in Charleston in 1867—and at other times too, such as in Washington, D.C., in 1943—but that does not mean they happened on the same scale or had the same effect as those that went on in the sixties. I am only saying it might be better to view the civil rights movement as a continuum, as a very long tradition, as opposed to a brief rupture. With that perspective, there would be periods of greater relative glory and periods of greater numbers, greater involvement; after all, it’s no coincidence the word “movement” entered the popular lexicon in the 1960s and not before. But creation myths that say it sprang up, willy-nilly, on the Monday the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education case or on the Thursday Rosa Parks was arrested are not supported by the historical record. That type of history tells us more about certain needs that reside in the human brain—like the need for order, for narrative division and logic— than anything else.

And if the movement is a continuum, then in keeping with the meaning of that word, which connotes stability and permanence, a continuation of something, then quite possibly it never went away, not altogether. It could be out there even now, in some form. That was the implication of Julian Bond’s comment, after all. So I decided to go looking for it. I wanted to find the civil rights movement in its contemporary guise, and that would also mean answering the critical question of what happened to it after the 1960s, after the “ending” of King’s assassination. 

Excerpted from In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now by Benjamin Hedin, published by City Lights.

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