As African American women, we bring a distinct set of lenses to our work as co-directors of District and Systems Transformation at AISR, lenses informed and amplified by our experiences and contexts. As a child of 1950s America, Alethea grew up in the North and can recall carefully planned trips “down South” to visit family, trips that were navigated around access to segregated restaurants, gas stations, bathrooms, and hopefully minimal encounters with the police. And while protected somewhat from the harsher brutalities of racism in the South, she also understood full well that a generation after her grandparents migrated north, segregation in America still prohibited equal opportunities for her parents in employment, housing, and education.
Angela, by contrast, grew up in the South in the 1970s. Her schools were fully integrated as a result of busing, but her single mom still had to actively fight for her to be one of only one or two Black faces in the “advanced” classes in her under-resourced middle and high school, while working full time and raising two children.
As this Black History Month comes to end, we recognize much progress from the eras of our childhoods, but in our work toward education and social justice, we are also sometimes weary. In the unending quest to provide liberty and justice for all, we are reminded that the rights for which we pledge allegiance to the American flag are still not accessible to many public school children across the nation. We can become disillusioned in the current political context, knowing that the hard-fought battles for access to quality education, voting rights, and other civil liberties were fragile victories at best, as we now witness states taking two steps backward from the giant steps that helped to move our country toward a more just and fair society.
In Texas and Florida, for example, thousands of voters in recent elections have been disenfranchised by voter ID laws, limited early voting, and mishandling of ballots, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. In Louisiana and New Jersey, state-run school authorities with limited capacity and no clear track record of success have closed or taken over schools in primarily low-income urban communities of color without replacing them with high-quality options that are local and accessible for all children and families.
Yet when we become weary, we need only remember how long civil rights activists like Rosanell Eaton have been engaged in the struggle for equity and justice and let her ninety-four years be a gauge for the persistence we will need in the face of inequities that deny whole communities of children the right to a quality education.
Seventy-three years ago at age twenty-one, Rosanell Eaton refused to be denied her right to vote, and she met every challenge handed her by White voter registrars. She recited by memory the preamble to the Constitution, passed the literacy test contrived by the voter registration office, and became a registered voter in the state of North Carolina – a right that she has continued to exercise and has fought for on behalf of others ever since. Sadly, at age ninety-four she is still fighting in the trenches against voter ID laws passed in her home state that threaten to disenfranchise her along with countless others from communities that are already marginalized, communities where the right to a quality education has been as elusive as retaining the right to vote.
This is disheartening, but what we can learn from Rosanell Eaton is that while we may become weary in the face of inequity, like her we must remain vigilant and relentless in the pursuit of justice and encourage current and future generations of young people to exercise their right to vote and to fight for their right to a quality education.
Eaton and many like her have sustained their vigilance over decades. While education has been called the “civil rights issue of our time,” the education of Black people has always been a civil rights issue. The fight for access to equitable educational opportunities has been a part of not only Black history, but U.S. history, starting with enslaved Africans who practiced civil disobedience against Southern laws prohibiting them to read.
College students in the 1960s held sit-ins at lunch counters, led Freedom Rides, and marched in acts of civil disobedience. In the 1980s, they protested university investments benefitting the apartheid government in South Africa, furthering the principle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
As in the past, today’s youth find it unacceptable that their country has failed to provide them with a quality education, and continue to push adults in the system to provide the education they deserve. They demand an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and harsh discipline practices that disproportionately suspend Black and Brown students and they help lead the fight for a rigorous curriculum and qualified teachers in their classrooms. College students across the country, including on our own campus at Brown University, protest racial bias, marginalization of students of color, and the lack of faculty diversity.
Here in Providence, a coalition of youth organizers through a four year campaign successfully lobbied the Providence Public School District and City of Providence to provide funding for 1,000 more students to receive free transportation to school, reducing the mandatory living distance for high school students to receive free bus passes from three miles to two. In a district with majority Latino/a or African American students and 84 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, many parents could not afford a car or public transportation costs, requiring students to walk more than three miles to school every day. Local youth engaged elected officials and other leaders to “walk in our shoes” through the cold and snow to experience what they go through to attend school, and recently demanded that elected officials #KeepYourPromise after budget cuts threatened transportation funding.
In 1857, the great orator and statesman Frederick Douglass made clear the ongoing nature of our work when he stated, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Thus if there is to be progress in public education, we can expect a struggle when we – citizens both young and old – challenge the systemic inequities that are deeply embedded in the institutional fabric of our society. We must use our collective voices to address even more explicitly how inequities in voting rights, school discipline, teacher quality, and even transportation are intertwined and can operate in tandem to perpetuate segregation in our schools and challenge our voting rights at the polls.
As African American women fighting for social justice, when we get weary in our work and question the ability of systems to change for the better, we draw inspiration from civil rights champions past and present, and we continue to work across districts and communities to advance educational equity and excellence. We may get weary, but we continue in the struggle as a reminder to young people in generations that follow that their efforts matter, that they matter, and to let them know what Frederick Douglass knew well back in 1857: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”