(RNS) — The death of Bob Moses on Sunday (July 25) at age 86 should make anyone who dares meddle with Americans’ voting rights in this country pause. The life of the great educator and civil rights leader in Mississippi during the turbulent and violent 1960s reminds us that there may be no more noble cause and that it attracts powerful champions.
I met the 29-year-old Moses at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in February 1964, when I was a young rabbi serving Congregation B’Nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Missouri. Like millions of Americans, I had been deeply moved months before by the huge civil rights rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the Lincoln Memorial.
In February 1964, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City sent me to Hattiesburg as its official representative to participate in the interreligious Ministers’ Project, which included rabbis, Presbyterian pastors and Episcopal priests from all over the country. I spent a week in Mississippi supporting the town’s African Americans, who were cynically forced to take a detailed and lengthy test that only a constitutional scholar could pass, designed to systematically deprive them of their vote.
When the Hattiesburg voting rights drive began in January, only 12 out of 7,000 eligible Black voters were registered. By early April, the number had climbed to nearly 800.
The drive, based upon non-violent direct action, consisted of marching each morning for several hours with other clergy in front of the Forrest County Courthouse demanding an end to voter suppression. In the afternoons, we went from house to house, instructing Black residents on how to register despite the onerous restrictions that were placed on them. In the evenings, the rabbis and Christian clergy attended various Black churches where we heard stirring music, powerful sermons and again we offered assistance in voter registration.
On one of those nights, at Morning Star Baptist, Bob Moses got up to speak. A graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he had earned a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard University, but, stirred by the civil rights movement, he had left his safe teaching position at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York City, and traveled to Mississippi in 1960.
Moses soon became a prominent figure as the field secretary in the newly established voter registration group, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, popularly known as “Snick.”
By February of 1964, he had become a legend. He had been shot at as he rode in a car. He had been knifed in the head by a violent segregationist, and, because no white doctor would treat his wound, Moses had to be driven around until a Black physician was finally located and sewed nine stitches in his head.
Moses delivered a powerful, eloquent address that night at Morning Star. He had a professorial mien and communicated in a soft voice but spoke in powerful cadences about the fundamental American right to vote. Fifty-seven years later, the memory of Moses’ magnificent oration has the power to stir me.
The next year, Moses organized the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project that attracted many young volunteers, including two young Jewish men from New York City: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who heeded Moses’ call to assist in registering Black voters.
That summer, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by members of the Ku Klux Klan, along with James Chaney, a young Black civil rights worker. Their killers were only brought to justice many years later.
Moses believed that a quality education was another necessity if we were to achieve a just and equitable society. In the 1980s, Moses organized “The Algebra Project,” whose goal was to help young Black students acquire skill in mathematics, a subject Moses discovered was greatly lacking for many African-American students.
When I returned to Kansas City, I wrote an article that appeared in the “Jewish Frontier,” a national magazine, about my Mississippi experiences. I concluded the piece with two predictions: There would be violence in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, and “total integration” would come to the United States within 10 years.
I was tragically correct about the potential for violence and much too optimistic about the end of racism in the United States. In those days, listening to men like Moses, it was possible to believe it.
May his memory and legacy always be an inspiration and a challenge for all Americans.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached atjamesrudin.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
(RNS) — Just-retired Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is an apologist for an adaptive style of leadership. It’s what has helped her succeed as the first woman to hold many roles in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And it’s a style of leadership she said was needed during the pandemic.
“Adaptive leadership means that you are faced with situations but do not have a solution or answer that comes from past experiences, so you have to adapt,” she said in an interview on Thursday (July 15), a week after her retirement began at the close of her denomination’s General Conference in Orlando, Florida.
“You have to know how to pivot, you have to step back, get on the balcony, survey the scene, throw out what you know or what you think you know and then find the answer that’s going to fit this issue right here.”
McKenzie, who remains the national chaplain of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, acknowledged this approach appeals to her because that’s the way she’s lived her life as a female trailblazer in her 205-year-old denomination. In 2000, McKenzie was the first woman elected bishop and later the first to serve as president of its Council of Bishops and chair of the General Conference Commission, which organizes the denomination’s quadrennial meeting.
Now one of five women bishops elected in the AME Church, McKenzie remains ready to answer anyone who questions their ability to lead.
“Do I think women can do this? Yes,” she said. “Do I think women are called to this? Yes. Do I think the women that have been elected in my denomination have done an exceptional job? Absolutely.”
As she led AME regional districts in Africa, Tennessee and Texas, McKenzie said she focused on her work rather than her title, letting the results speak for themselves. She modeled holding babies with AIDS to show it was safe and proved it was worthwhile to develop church websites to help attract new members and it was practical to use golf tournaments as fundraisers for church projects and seminary scholarships.
As she spoke at the conclusion of the General Conference bishops’ retirement service on July 9, she thanked her husband, former NBA guard Stan McKenzie (the first male episcopal supervisor of missionary work in the AME Church), her denomination and God for their support.
“What God did for me is evidence of what God can do for you,” she said. “For if God could do this, God can do what God promises you. That can be done no matter who says it can’t be.”
McKenzie, 74, talked with Religion News Service about her journey as a female bishop, those who paved the way for her to reach that role, and what’s next for her and for her denomination.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, center, outgoing pastor of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, bids longtime member Helen Thorton farewell on her last Sunday at the church in Sept. 2000. At left is her husband, Stan McKenzie. Photo by Carl Bower
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Looking back as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is there a way you would sum up your experience since 2000?
Being the first of anything, there is no book. There is no DVD. There’s no movie. There’s nobody in front of you, to be able to share back experiences of what it’s going to look like and feel like and be like and so you’re charting your own way. And as people receive you — not only as you are in your position but also receive you as a human being — and begin to see you have something to bring to the table and be able to embrace the uniqueness of my femininity. I do what bishops have to do, but I don’t do them in the same way because I’m Vashti.
Your family has long been in the journalism business, running the Afro American newspaper chain. You wrote newspaper articles starting at age 16 and as bishop you oversaw denominational publications including The Christian Recorder. What was it like to move from being in the news business to becoming a newsmaker?
It was a little bit different being on the other side of the microphone, the other side of the camera and on the other side of the notepad, really, because I grew up telling some other people’s stories. And then the shift comes where then you become the story. And so, my intention was not to have my episcopal career be about me. That my episcopal career would be about the people I serve. So I was intentional, to focus on the work, rather than the first. God didn’t just call me to be first. God called me to do the work. And so that’s what I focused on in each of the districts I served.
You mentioned in the “Echoes from the General Conference” documentary that, though 2000 was a turning point for women bishops, it was preceded by earlier actions. What and/or who paved the way?
Well, many, many women. Many women whose names were not written, who did not get a footnote, who were in the margins. Faces and names people have forgotten a long time ago. Beginning with Jarena Lee. Jarena Lee stood at her time, when Bishop Richard Allen says he’s not going to license women. But God created an opportunity and she stood, and so then off she goes to walking and preaching hundreds of miles.
Elizabeth Scott ran for the episcopacy for many, many, many years. The women who were appointed presiding elders, the women who were appointed pastors, and did fabulous work because if they didn’t, then they would never give another woman a chance.
The 2021 episcopal address, the message of the bishops to the denomination during the General Conference, spoke of longtime struggles for women to gain ordination, and the rank of bishop. What action do you think is needed still?
What seems to be difficult for the church at large — and I’m talking about the universal church, denominations at large — is the inability of embracing inclusivity, as far as women is concerned. Just because you’re at the table, doesn’t mean it’s success for all women. Just because there’s one presiding elder, one woman who is a bishop, doesn’t mean the playing field is level for all women. And so in order for that to happen, we have to be intentional, and intentional means you don’t promote or assign just because a woman is a woman. You recognize her gifts. When I ran, I didn’t run on a platform saying elect me because I’m a woman. I ran on a platform that says elect me because I’m qualified.
Was there something you’re particularly proud of achieving in ecumenical or interfaith circles?
Most of my ministry is focused within the AME Church but I preach everywhere. I have preached for the Presbyterian women, the Baptist women. I preached for the Hampton (University) Ministers’ Conference with denominations from all over, for the United Methodist Church, for the United Methodist annual conferences. And in that way, sharing prophetically also helps to shape people’s embracing women. I have preached at Catholic churches. I have spoken in Jewish communities.
I have preached in seminaries, and it’s so important for the female seminarians to be able to see someone who is their same gender, who has the same kind of uniqueness, as an encouragement to see the broader picture, to see ministry beyond your own front door.
The AME Church has voted to start an ad hoc committee on LGBTQ matters. Do you think it may be turning a corner about acceptance of LGBTQ people, just as the denomination turned a corner on women bishops 21 years ago?
I think dialogue is going to be good for the church because there are different people in different places having different kinds of conversations and to be able to have open conversation, which an ad hoc committee would provide, where the church is gathered, will be healthy and may be helpful.
Do you see an end to the ban on same-sex marriage?
I think we’re going to have to wait and see the conversation, the power of the conversation. I just think it’s just too hard to predict at this moment. We have to remember the church, the broader church, has a hard time dealing with racism. Church, period, had a hard time dealing with sexism. They have a hard time dealing with agism, classism. And now, this is the next wrestle. And after this wrestle, there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another.
So now that you have reached retirement as an AME bishop, what’s next for you?
I’m going to continue with Selah (Leadership Encounters for Women, her professional women’s empowerment organization) because I have a passion for leadership. I plan to write. This is a good time to sit down and put some thoughts down on paper. And then, as they say, we’ll look into the horizon to see what also is next.
This story has been corrected to clarify that the African Methodist Episcopal Church has a ban on same-sex marriage. It does not have a ban on ordination of LGBTQ persons.
In the 1960s, health care across the Mississippi Delta was sparse and much of it was segregated. Some hospitals were dedicated to Black patients, but they often struggled to stay afloat. At the height of the civil rights movement, young Black doctors launched a movement of their own to address the care disparity.
“Mississippi was third-world and was so bad and so separated,” said Dr. Robert Smith. “The community health center movement was the conduit for physicians all over this country who believed that all people have a right to health care.”
In 1967, Smith helped start Delta Health Center, the country’s first rural community health center. They put the clinic in Mound Bayou, a small town in the heart of the Delta, in northwestern Mississippi. The center became a national model and is now one of nearly 1,400 such clinics across the country. These clinics, called federally qualified health centers, are a key resource in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, where about 2 in 5 people live in rural areas. Throughout the U.S., about 1 in 5 people live in rural areas.
The covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges facing rural health care, such as lack of broadband internet access and limited public transportation. For much of the vaccine rollout, those barriers have made it difficult for providers, like community health centers, to get shots into the arms of their patients.
“I just assumed that [the vaccine] would flow like water, but we really had to pry open the door to get access to it,” said Smith, who still practices family medicine in Mississippi.
Mound Bayou was founded by formerly enslaved people, many of whom became farmers.
The once-thriving downtown was home to some of the first Black-owned businesses in the state. Today the town is dotted with shuttered or rundown banks, hotels and gas stations.
Mitch Williams grew up on a Mound Bayou farm in the 1930s and ’40s and spent long days working the soil.
“If you would cut yourself, they wouldn’t put no sutures in, no stitches in it. You wrapped it up and kept going,” Williams said.
When Delta Health Center started operations in 1967, it was explicitly for all residents of all races — and free to those who needed financial help.
Williams, 85, was one of its first patients.
“They were seeing patients in the local churches. They had mobile units. I had never seen that kind of comprehensive care,” he said.
Residents really needed it. In the 1960s, many people in Mound Bayou and the surrounding area didn’t have clean drinking water or indoor plumbing.
At the time, the 12,000 Black residents of northern Bolivar County, which includes Mound Bayou, faced unemployment rates as high as 75% and lived on a median annual income of just $900 (around $7,500 in today’s dollars), according to a congressional report. The infant mortality rate was close to 60 for every 1,000 live births — four times the rate for affluent Americans.
Delta Health Center employees helped people insulate their homes. They built outhouses and provided food and sometimes even traveled to patients’ homes to offer care, if someone didn’t have transportation. Staffers believed these factors affected health outcomes, too.
Williams, who later worked for Delta Health, said he’s not sure where the community would be today if the center didn’t exist.
“It’s frightening to think of it,” he said.
Half a century later, the Delta Health Center continues to provide accessible and affordable care in and around Mound Bayou.
Black Southerners still face barriers to health. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, Black residents accounted for nearly half of covid deaths in Alabama and over 70% in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Public health data from last month shows that Black residents of those states have consistently been more likely to die of covid than residents of other races.
“We have a lot of chronic health conditions here, particularly concentrated in the Mississippi Delta, that lead to higher rates of complications and death with covid,” said Nadia Bethley, a clinical psychologist at the center. “It’s been tough.”
Delta Health Center has grown over the decades, from a few trailers in Mound Bayou to a chain of 18 clinics across five counties. It’s managed to vaccinate over 5,500 people against covid. The majority have been Black.
“We don’t have the National Guard, you know, lining up out here, running our site. It’s the people who work here,” Bethley said.
The Mississippi State Department of Health said it has prioritized health centers since the beginning of the rollout. But Delta Health CEO John Fairman said the center was receiving only a couple of hundred doses a week in January and February. The supply became more consistent around early March, center officials said.
“Many states would be much further ahead had they utilized community health centers from the very beginning,” Fairman said. Fairman said his center saw success with vaccinations because of its long-standing relationships with the local communities.
“Use the infrastructure that’s already in place, that has community trust,” said Fairman.
That was the entire point of the health center movement in the first place, said Smith. He said states that were slow to use health centers in the vaccine rollout made a mistake that has made it difficult to get a handle on covid in the most vulnerable communities.
Smith called the slow dispersal of vaccines to rural health centers “an example of systemic racism that continues.”
A spokesperson for Mississippi’s health department said it is “committed to providing vaccines to rural areas but, given the rurality of Mississippi, it is a real challenge.”
Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said the low dose allocation to rural health clinics and community health centers early on is “going to cost lives.”
“With hospitalizations and mortality much higher in rural communities, these states need to focus on the hot spots, which in many cases are these small towns,” Morgan said of the vaccine efforts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
A report from KFF found that people of color made up the majority of people vaccinated at community health centers and that the centers seem to be vaccinating people at rates similar to or higher than their share of the population. (The KHN newsroom, which collaborated to produce this story, is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
The report added that “ramping up health centers’ involvement in vaccination efforts at the federal, state and local levels” could be a meaningful step in “advancing equity on a larger scale.”
Equal access to care in rural communities is necessary to reach the most vulnerable populations and is just as critical during this global health crisis as it was in the 1960s, according to Smith.
“When health care improves for Blacks, it will improve for all Americans,” Smith said.
This story is from a partnership that includes NPR, KHN and the three stations that make up the Gulf States Newsroom: Mississippi Public Broadcasting; WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama; and WWNO in New Orleans.
FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo, an electronic signboard welcomes people to the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) — With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice.
But then, Howard University has never exactly been low-profile.
For more than a century, the predominantly Black institution in the nation’s capital has educated generations of Black political and cultural leaders. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Vice President Kamala Harris.
But even by those standards, the school has been on a hot streak lately, with new funding streams, fresh cultural relevancy and high-profile faculty additions. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as confirmation that Howard intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate.
FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard University, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. She rose to fame with The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which reframed U.S. history through a racial equity lens and helped mainstream the idea of critical race theory — a topic that has become a core Republican talking point.
FILE – In this Nov. 21, 2019 file photo, author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks during the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Coates serves as confirmation that Howard University intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
Coates has written critically on U.S. race relations for years and is closely associated with the argument for reparations for slavery.
Howard’s president, Wayne Frederick, doesn’t characterize either hiring as overtly political, but merely a natural extension of the university’s motivating ethos.
“Howard University has been on that caravan for social justice for about 154 years,” Frederick said in an interview. “Howard has a rich legacy. … My responsibility is to contemporize that and to bring faculty to the university who are in the contemporary space, speaking to present-day issues.”
Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb, a Howard alumnus, described the moves as a pivotal jump in the university’s national stature. Howard, he said, had gone from traditionally “punching above its weight class” to “moving up a whole division.”
All this is just a few years removed from a period of internal tension and financial scandal. In 2018, six employees were fired amid revelations of more than $350,000 in misappropriated grant funding, and students staged a nine-day occupation of the administration building over demands that included better housing and an end to tuition increases.
But even amid those problems, Howard has seen a boost in applications and enrollment as more Black students choose to attend historically Black colleges and universities. “I do think that we’re seeing a renaissance, and that that’s driven by the students more than the parents,” said Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies at Brown University. Rooks attended Spelman, an all-female HBCU in Atlanta.
Howard University Student Association President Kylie Burke, left, introduces Vice President Kamala Harris to the podium to speaks about voting rights at Howard University in Washington, Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Vice President Harris returned to Howard days after the hirings were announced. Speaking at a news conference on a voters’ rights initiative sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, she received a rapturous welcome from a packed house that supplied church-style “amens” and burst into applause when she called Howard “a very important part of why I stand before you at this moment as vice president of the United States of America.”
For current students, the school’s rising profile is a confirmation of their choice to attend “The Mecca” — one of Howard’s many nicknames.
“There’s something truly intangible about this university,” said Kylie Burke, a political science major and president of the Howard Student Association, who introduced Harris at the event. Like Harris, Burke came from Northern California to attend Howard, and she served as a legislative fellow in Harris’ office when she was a senator. “Howard teaches you a thing about grit, it teaches you to remain focused, it teaches you to be persistent,” Burke said.
The hirings capped a dizzying stretch for Howard.
FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo with the Founders Library in the background, people walk along the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Within the past year, Harris was elected vice president; MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated $40 million; and actor Phylicia Rashad returned to her alma mater as dean of the newly independent College of Fine Arts. That college will be named after the late Chadwick Boseman, a Howard graduate whose role as African superhero Black Panther made him an instant icon and shined a fresh cultural spotlight on the school.
Boseman expressed his love for the university in a 2018 commencement speech, calling it “a magical place.” He cited one of the school’s more modern nicknames, “Wakanda University,” a reference to the movie’s technologically advanced African utopia.
Although there’s rising interest across the HBCU network, Cobb said Howard will always attract a particular demographic of Black student such as Harris with an interest in politics and governance. The school has produced members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and mayors. One of Cobb’s undergraduate classmates was Ras Baraka, now mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
Rooks said Hannah-Jones’ move could have ripple effects throughout academia.
Traditionally, Rooks said, Black academics were drawn to predominantly white universities because that’s where the funding and the prestige lay. But Hannah-Jones didn’t just bring her reputation; she also brought nearly $20 million in funding.
“It’s a whole other thing when you become the benefactor,” Rooks said. “We all learn how to behave, how to act, in the presence of power. If you’re the power and it’s your money, you’ve taken a whole racial dynamic off the table.”
Still, Howard’s rising prominence does bring the risk that it will overshadow smaller HBCUs. Rooks said Howard and a handful of other big names such as Morehouse, Spelman and Hampton dominate the headlines and the funding. She said, half-jokingly, that most Black American students couldn’t name more than 12 of the 107 HBCUs in the country.
One possible example of the phenomenon: In 2019, NBA star Steph Curry donated an undisclosed amount to allow Howard to launch Division I men’s and women’s golf teams, and fund them for six years. Curry was raised in North Carolina, home to 10 active HBCUs, and holds no particular connection to Howard.
The HBCU world still boils down to “five or six schools that really attract a lot of attention,” Rooks said, and dozens of others that are “desperate for funding.”
Howard’s recent fortune, she said, is “not necessarily going to raise all the boats.”
Associated Press writer Hilary Powell contributed to this report.
Follow Khalil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ashrafkhalil
In the nineteenth century, many American communities and cities celebrated Independence Day with a ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence, which was usually followed by an oral address or speech dedicated to the celebration of independence and the heritage of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. On July 5, 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited the Black abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass to be the keynote speaker for their Independence Day celebration. The Fourth of July Speech, scheduled for Rochester’s Corinthian Hall, attracted an audience of 600. The meeting opened with a prayer and was followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Douglass finally came to the platform to deliver his speech, the event took a jarring turn. Douglass told his audience, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” And he asked them, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
Within Douglass’ now-legendary address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called “probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass’ speeches.”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
On this and every July 4th, Americans might do well to re-read and reflect on Douglass’ famous message. It challenges us to move beyond the biases and blind spots of our own cultural privileges and consider those around us for whom, as Langston Hughes said, “America has never been America.”
Read Douglass’ complete speech here, and watch actor Danny Glover recite an excerpt from the address below.
States want to prevent schools from telling the truth about racism in America. Here’s what educators can do about it.
Rann Miller, Chalkbeat
It’s not enough to quote Martin Luther King Jr. and point to stories of Black success.
At least half a dozen states have introduced legislation to prevent the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. Educators in states where such bills become law would be blocked from teaching about the racist roots of Western society, generally, and the United States, specifically, and how racism continues to plague us. Some states are trying to ban the use of the 1619 Project, as well.
To understand why Critical Race Theory, or CRT, and the 1619 Project — a New York Times magazine series about how slavery has shaped the U.S. — draw the ire of many Republican legislators, we can look to the late Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire for guidance:
Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression. Formerly, they could eat, dress, wear shoes, be educated, travel, and hear Beethoven; while millions did [none of those things]. Any restriction on this way of life, in the name of rights of the community, appears to the former oppressors as a profound violation of their individual rights.
But it is not oppression.
It is entirely plausible that the lawmakers passing these bills feel that any restriction to or challenge of teaching and learning from a Eurocentric lens is a profound violation of their rights and those of their constituents, specifically because they’re white. That would explain why so many white people levy the claim of reverse racism on CRT or the 1619 Project.
There’s anxiety regarding America’s changing demographics and perceived direction, but the reality is that, even in this increasingly diverse nation, power and authority remain largely in the hands of white people. Roughly 80% of all teachers and administrators in U.S. public schools are white. These are the individuals who set the tone for what is taught and how it is taught.
By contrast, white students make up only 46% of American public school students.
In New Jersey, where I live, where I’ve taught, and where I currently direct after-school programming, lawmakers have chosen to embrace the teaching of Black history with the passage of its Amistad Law, which mandates that all public schools teach Black history. The commission notwithstanding, white teachers comprise the the vast majority of those making curriculum decisions about Black History.
In the district where I currently work, of the six curriculum supervisors of curriculum, only one is Black, while 24% of our district students are Black.
There is a common and specific rationale among those who argue against teaching the truth of American history. It goes something like this:
While enslavement and segregation did happen. It happened long ago and was not instituted by anyone alive today. Black people, like Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, have succeeded in spite of racism. Therefore we can move on. … Besides, I don’t see color; as Dr. Martin Luther King said, I judge people based on the content of their character alone.
I’ve heard these arguments numerous times from colleagues and superiors alike who didn’t understand the need for things like culturally relevant pedagogy and culturally responsive texts, more Black and Latinx teachers, and a Black Student Union. I’ve heard it in personal conversations with white people. I’ve heard it from some Black people, too.
But as a teacher and student of history, I am well aware of the truth of our society’s white supremacist roots, its racist systems, and its white spaces. It is responsible, for example, for white teachers suspending Black children at disproportionately high rates.
I understand the trepidation white teachers may have teaching enslavement and segregation; some of my colleagues have shared that with me. Some have told me that they don’t want to offend. Others have said that there’s information they just don’t know.
I also understand that white teachers may be unaware of the systemic racism within the Constitution or the nation’s history oppressing Black and brown people outside of its borders, such as in Haiti and its role in overthrowing governments in Black and brown lands like Hawaii. I never learned those truths in school. Why would teachers and parents and politicians be comfortable with history lessons they were never taught and ones that debunk much of what they always believed to be true?
So what is the solution? Thankfully, there are some things that district leaders can do.
First, they must really invest in their professional development programs — ones that teach about historical truths surrounding white supremacy and racism and ones that teach educators how to apply this knowledge to their content area and the grade levels they teach.
Second, district leaders must identify teachers willing to teach — or willing to learn how to teach — these necessary truths to students in all content areas. It certainly doesn’t hurt to hire more Black teachers. Not that white teachers can’t do it, but speaking as a former Black social studies teacher, I wanted to teach about racism, enslavement, and the Africans who arrived in the Americas before African enslavement, and I wasn’t scared to do it.
In addition to hiring more Black teachers, hire Black curriculum supervisors and directors — those with the power to select and distribute culturally relevant and responsive texts, teaching strategies, and assessments.
State policymakers can attempt to outlaw what students learn. But they cannot outlaw what teachers learn, and they cannot prevent school districts from hiring more Black educators. This is a way to circumvent their legislative efforts.
Certainly, some will disagree with these suggestions, just as my children disagree with eating their vegetables. However, it doesn’t stop me from putting the vegetables on their plate, nor should we fail to teach the truth of American history.
Rann Miller is an educator from New Jersey. He is a former social studies teacher and a director of a local after-school and summer program. In addition, Miller is a professional development presenter and public speaker. His writings on race, education, politics, and history are featured in the Hechinger Report, Education Week, and the Grio. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.