After listening recently to RiShawn Biddle’s podcast calling on civil rights leaders to change their approach to education reform, I was reminded of an unpublished column written by one Florida legend in the civil rights movement, the Rev. H.K. Matthews. Matthews shared the commentary with me and others after several civil rights groups last summer demanded that President Obama reconsider the core elements of his education agenda, which included the expansion of charter schools and the closure of consistently low-performing schools. These iconic groups, which included the NAACP and the National Urban League, had good intentions in presenting their education policy framework, but Matthews found their arguments irrelevant today. Their call for equal opportunity, he wrote, was “limited by some familiar boundaries of generations past — those of neighborhood and family income.”
Matthews, whose story is chronicled in the biography Victory After the Fall, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and was jailed 35 times for his many protests of segregated lunch counters in northwest Florida. In recent years, he has joined the call for more educational options for poor families, an effort he called “a natural extension of the civil rights movement.” In this column, which has never seen publication until now, he asks his brethren to erase the lines we have drawn in the past:
The African-American leaders who convened in Washington last week [July] to call educational quality the “civil rights battle of this generation” have it at least half right. Unfortunately, their call for equal opportunity seems limited by some familiar boundaries of generations past– those of neighborhood and family income.
As President Obama put it: “What’s not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo … What’s not working is what we’ve been doing for decades now.”