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The commemoration of a student civil rights movement in Farmville, Va., was evident in an article crafted by Carl Rowan entitled: "And a Little Child Shall Lead Them." The article was featured in the Saturday Evening Post. It was later shared with me by an early prominent student-civil rights activist: Barbara Johns Powell and her sister Joan Johns Cobbs in 1961. This was a decade after their student strike in Farmville, Va., sparked a revolution in the quest for equality and justice in American public education.
So much time has passed since that day. In fact, decades have passed. And now as historians research the early history of the civil rights movement, it is evident that it was Barbara Johns, an African-American child, who lead the first historic march out of a segregated school and changed the course of history and landscape of American public education in America forever.
It would be rather difficult to comprehend the enormous courage that it took to move against the institution of segregation that had become a way of life for centuries in American towns. An institution of segregation that was first embedded in the American slavery system and later ingrained in the quasi-freedom granted African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a form of a racist segregation system of Jim Crow that had become so internalized in Virginia that everyone in town knew his/her "place." The physical signs, "whites" and "colored," were not really necessary but they were there. And as Joan Johns Cobbs states: "I remember that those signs were posted in Farmville at the train station and movie theater, etc." The Jim Crow laws were in the statutes and thereby enforced if anyone ever attempted to deviate from the norm. This was the law. Therefore, "Everyone in Farmville got along. They just lived and let live," my Aunt Inez Venable used to tell me.
Barbara Johns was born in 1935. She was only 16 years old when she decided to lead a student strike. She was frustrated by the inequities that surrounded her. "I decided, indeed, something had to be done about this inequality. I prayed for help. That night, whether in a dream or whether I was awake, a plan began to formulate in my mind. A plan that I felt was divinely inspired," Johns wrote.
And on that fateful day of April 23, 1951, Barbara Johns led the strike that occurred at RR Moton High School. And, the entire student body walked out with her. The students were walking away from the tar paper shacks which served as classrooms. They were walking away from the inadequate materials, equipment, and facilities. They were using nonviolent direct action as a means to end an injustice that had become a way of life for their ancestors, their parents, and their siblings. Surely, this was one giant step toward democracy. And that giant step resonated around the world.
The students walked out and their parents supported them. The federal court case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward, supported them. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Attorneys Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill supported them. The students were supported by Brown v. Board's chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall who argued their case, which was one of the five cases that formed Brown v. Board of Education, which led to Justice Earl Warren's ruling of 1954 that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional. And again in 1955 Brown II, the second Supreme Court Case, Warren ordered desegregation of schools "with all deliberate speed."
The Supreme Court supported the student strikers. It supported the Reverend Francis Griffin in 1954 when a ruling was handed down, in Griffin v. County School Board. This forced the reopening of public schools in Prince Edward County six long years after the Prince Edward County supervisors voted to close public schools rather than desegregate them. In 1954 the Supreme Court reopened the public schools.
But it took the intervention of President John F. Kennedy, President Eisenhower's successor, and Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States, to place Farmville and Prince Edward County (as I remember my mother saying) "on the map." In 1963 the Kennedy Administration organized the Free Schools Association for Prince Edward County, which became the first formal schooling for black students since 1959. And the American Federation of Teachers and United Federation of Teachers helped in establishing freedom schools.
Robert F. Kennedy said the following in 1963 before visiting Farmville: "We may observe with much sadness and irony that, outside of Africa, south of the Sahara, where education is still a difficult challenge, the only places on earth known not to provide free public education are Communist China, North Viet Nam, Sarawak, Singapore, British Honduras - and Prince Edward County, Virginia. Something must be done about Prince Edward County." 
Today, Barbara Johns' student-organized strike in Farmville, Va., has been viewed as the beginning of the democratization of the American public education system. Today we remember Barbara Johns Powell: a married mother of five children, who attended Spelman College and completed her education at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa. Barbara Johns Powell, the young student activist, became a librarian/teacher in the Philadelphia Public Schools and served for 23 years, until her untimely death in 1991.
Now, her legacy lives on. Her leadership is remembered and revered by many throughout our country and even in Prince Edward County, where the civil rights movement in public education began. Therefore the following notice recently in the press seemed to be a fitting and lasting tribute to her:
"Stanley Bleifeld, sculptor, will design a monument to honor the legacy of two giants in the struggle for Civil Rights in America: the late Thurgood Marshall and the late Barbara Johns. This privately financed monument will stand on Virginia's Capitol grounds. Mr. Bleifeld's design centers on a massive stone block. One side will read "Brown vs. Board of Education," a nod to the landmark school desegregation case. The other would feature "Moton High School," the Farmville school central in that case. Bronze images of Virginia civil rights leaders surrounding the tablet would include one of Barbara Johns. A relief of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall will also emerge from the block." And in the year 2008, it became a reality.
Perhaps it may be difficult to find Carl Rowan's tribute to Barbara Johns: "And and Little Child Shall Lead Them." However, the memory of Barbara Johns, as the leader of the student civil rights movement, will be cast in stone. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who told us to let justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream. We must be just like the Prophet Amos, who was seeking not consensus ... but the cleansing action of revolutionary change. America has made progress toward freedom. But King reminded us that measured against the goal, the road ahead is still long and hard. Therefore this could be the worst possible moment for slowing down.
We know even today, the road ahead which leads to justice and equality for all Americans is still long and hard. But King also said: "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." And surely, now that a little child has led the way, we must press on!

Stop Blaming Teachers!


The article " Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers" in Newsweek failed to note the fact that inner city public schools are never provided the resources needed to succeed. It appears that the schools in the poorest neighborhoods are red lined. Nothing good comes into the schools. And anything that is good leaves .i.e. the best students, best teachers and the state of the art equipment, supplies, and educational resources, which are stolen. One might also note that the physical plant itself would be more of a barren wasteland if not for the intervention of teachers unions which advocate for students as well as teachers. The United Federation of Teachers School Safety and Health officials do a herculean job battling against the health and safety violations in NYC public schools. Certainly, teachers want what children need: an environment that is conducive to learning.

In 1991, it seemed difficult to comprehend how 8,800 prison cells were on the drawing board in New York State. Yet the prospect of building new schools to replace our crumbling schools had become a dream deferred. So the question is asked: Where were the political pundits who campaigned on a platform for education? How had their commitment to education manifested itself? Today we see the results of their actions.
It is really sad to note that the prison system and not the public school system has found a way to constantly expand. There are currently two million Americans in prison -- 25 percent of the world's prison population. In the US, it costs $56 billion dollars a year to maintain our nation's prisons, and an additional $2.6 billion dollars is poured into building new ones annually. Yet the plan to pauperize our inner city schools continues. And then, without fully investigating, reporters and political pundits blame teachers for these neglected and abandoned failing schools.

Surely, the systematic strangling of education in these high poverty and high crime neighborhoods is preparing another road other than the road to success for the students to follow. It is the "school-to-prison pipeline": an alarming trend wherein public elementary, middle and high schools are pushing youth out of classrooms and into the juvenile justice and criminal justice system.

In May 2007, Congressman Rangel addressed the United Federation of Teachers. Rangel reminded UFT'ers of the 2 million children who are "locked up" and the high cost of incarceration of these children; the incarceration which costs the taxpayer approximately $100,000.00 per annum for a youth-offender on Rikers Island. It was fifty years ago that Martin Luther King addressed the UFT. At that time he said the following:
"The richest nation on earth has never allocated enough of its abundant resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige their work justifies. We squander funds on highways and the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the overabundance of overkill armaments, but we pauperize education."

As Americans, we have every right to challenge those who represent us in government. We have every right to hold legislators accountable for the pledges they have made regarding their commitment to education. We can see from the past mistakes of legislators exactly why it would have been more economically sound and beneficial to this nation, if the legislators had invested in education.

Reporters should stop blaming teachers for institutionalized failures the teachers did not create. Randi Weingarten's speech at the National Press Clubspoke of how to create a new path forward to great teachers and teaching. It included 4 components. First, Revamp evaluation systems to ensure they really are continuous models for development and evaluation of teachers. Next, come up with models of due process that are aligned and that are fair and fast. Then, give teachers the tools, time and trust they need to be successful. And finally, overhaul the labor management relationship-to ensure collaboration and partnership is what counts, not conflict and combativeness. And Randi Weingarten was correct! "We know that when we all work towards excellence, and take collective responsibility kids will succeed."

The Growth of Intolerance


According to the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law." 

Intolerance. What is it? The dictionary has termed intolerance as a negative portrayal of someone or something due to one's own prejudice. Intolerance has also been cited as a precursor to violence and in its severest form it leads to genocide. The Holocaust has been mentioned as the most infamous example of intolerance in Western culture. Intolerance of different cultures other than the Dutch or British made colonialism and slavery possible in the New World. And we can still see how discrimination continues as the remnants of an old slavery system in America, dies hard. Knowing this, why does intolerance continue to flourish? Why has it grown in leaps and bounds as hate crimes proliferate urban, suburban, and rural communities? Surely, we have seen how discrimination, harassment and bullying leads to violence on school campuses throughout the nation. Columbine is a classic example of that. 

We have also seen how freedom of speech has been twisted to provide a license for people to wage a war of hate throughout the media and
Internet, as ethnic jokes, black-face parodies, and ill humor based on another's race, religious affiliation, sexual orientation become salable. And even though these vignettes are morally wrong, they provide hours of comic relief to a very wide audience, while graffiti strewn on large surfaces become billboards of hate. Desecration of religious symbols in public places (at the pinnacle of a holy day) is just another indication that all is not well in morbidly tense communities.

As we look at the growth of intolerance around us, which is mimicked by some children in hate-speech, it becomes obvious that something is missing in our schools. Our schools are entrusted with the job of educating our youth in academic subjects as well as infusing students with moral qualities in order to prepare them for full participation in our democratic society. If this is not being done, then doing nothing is doing something harmful, which promotes intolerance.

"Morality cannot be legislated, said Dr. Martin Luther King, " but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me ---and I think that is important also. And so, while education may not be able to change the hearts of men, it can change the habits of men. And when the habits are changed, pretty soon the attitudes will change. The hearts will be changed, and men will be able to come together as brothers, recognizing the naturalness and the rightness of their togetherness," said Martin Luther King in his speech to the United Federation of Teachers in 1964.

With this truth in mind, we should revisit an April 20, 1994, mandate from The New York State Legislature.

"In order to promote a spirit of patriotic and civic service and obligation and to foster in the children of the state moral and intellectual qualities which are essential in preparing to meet the obligations of citizenship in peace or in war, the regents of the University of the State of New York shall prescribe a course of instruction in patriotism, citizenship and human rights issues, with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide, slavery, and the Holocaust, to be maintained and followed in all the schools of the state."

Certainly, implementing this mandate in schools would be a big step today toward ending the growth of intolerance in the future.

On Disobeying Unjust Laws


"How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine, "an unjust law is no law at all." Martin Luther King Jr. at Birmingham in 1963 said, "An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust." 

Presently, strikes, although unlawful, have been the only weapon unions have had to force employers to recognize and deal with their labor unions. In fact, the AFT has documented that trade unionists have been persecuted and jailed for exercising their democratic rights. There are incalculable cases where "labor organizations and democracy activists are under siege," globally.

In the New York State, trade unionists have had to wrestle with the Taylor Law from its inception. The law was put into effect in 1967, during the Rockefeller Administration. This was in response to the Transit Strike of 1966. Section 210 of the Taylor Law states that the municipal workers are not allowed to strike. Furthermore, it requires binding Public Employment Relations Board arbitration in the event of an impasse in negotiations. There is even a fine for striking. Plus many trade unionists, like Roger Toussaint, TWU President, have gone to jail. Surely, this "law degrades the human personality."

The Taylor Law seems to fit the mode of an unfair law because it penalizes labor and not management. Management seems unscathed as it moves toward the negotiation table at a snails pace. Hence, the impetus for management to negotiate contracts in a timely manner or negotiate in good faith is absent. There seems to be no penalty for management. Yet, the penalties for the UFT strikes of 1967, 1968 and 1975 are now a part of our Labor Union History.

Even the most recent attempts to negotiate with the city, took over two and a half years. Yes, two and a half years before the city even approached the bargaining table in good faith. Yet, there were no threats or reprisals on tap for management. Thus, it is obvious that changes to the Taylor Law are needed so that one can address the current inequity unions face at the bargaining table.

As we prepare, for a new set of negotiations to begin, we know that our past efforts to reform the Taylor Law have never proven successful, even after our COPE dollars were used to underwrite lobbying efforts aimed at advocating for a change in this unfair law. However, we must persevere. We have done it before.

As indicated by Abe Levine, former UFT Vice President, "During my 50 years on the Executive Board, our Union has grown tremendously in membership and influence. We have weathered many crises and have been successful in our efforts."

And surely any union that works to uplift the "human personality" is a just union. We must press on!

"We still have a long way to go in improving the race relations in this country," said Rosa Parks. Yes, Rosa Parks knew that, years after the desegregation rulings were passed, race still mattered in America. "Defining and Redirecting a School-to-Prison Pipeline," by Johanna Wald and Daniel Losen, tells this sorrowful tale of woe. If we look carefully, we can better understand what is happening in the inner city schools of America: "Students in high-poverty, high-minority schools are routinely provided fewer resources," they write.
The research states that these students have less access to credentialed, experienced teachers, to high-quality curriculum and to advanced-level courses than their more affluent, white peers.
Not surprisingly, they experience lower rates of high school graduation, academic achievement and college attendance levels.
Thus, we cannot be surprised to note that the New York City school system is not producing minority teachers en masse.
Furthermore, the research shows, "with a zero-tolerance approach to wrongdoing, an increase in the presence of police in schools, the use of metal detectors and search-and-seizure procedures in schools, and the enactment of new state laws mandating referral of children to law enforcement authorities for a variety of school code violations," it is evident that the school-to-prison pipeline will become the norm as the prisons, and not colleges, are filled with inner-city kids.
Hence, the New York City Board of Education will continue to recruit teachers from cities and towns well beyond the perimeters of the five boroughs.
Manhattan businesses will also recruit from beyond the island's borders for a viable work force.
If parents view the public school system as a pipeline to prison, if "new statutes mandating referral to law enforcement for school code violations are disproportionately affecting minority children and may be unnecessarily pushing them into the criminal justice system," according to Wald and Losen, parents will continue to seek admission to private or parochial schools.
Many families have already moved out of the city in a search for some relief. Some families are returning to their ancestral homes.
Race has always mattered in America. Our history tells us of the early enslavement of all people of color, even in New York State. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to us about the role of education as a road to equality and citizenship.
That is the road our students need to be traveling. Yet that road will become more and more elusive if early intervention is not provided for students at risk. An Individualized Education Program needs to be mapped out for all students to break the school-to-prison dynamic.
There should be a "school-to-college" IEP in sight, from Pre-K to B.A. i.e "a series of educational programs and options designed to embrace and hold on to all students, including those most troubled, most vulnerable and most at-risk," Wald and Losen assert.
Yes, we still have a long way to go, Rosa Parks. But we are making strides, one student at a time.
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