Fifty years ago, today, Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, which has become about the only thing many people know about him and the civil rights movement.
Slavery was outlawed in 1865. That didn’t mean that former slaves became full citizens in all of the United States. Some states still would not grant the vote to blacks. It took until 1964 for Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, and 1965 to pass the Voting Rights Act. Even that didn’t end discrimination.
Freedom, education, and family were all denied to black slaves. However, to this day, many descendants of those slaves who were freed 148 years ago still live enslaved — by poverty and illiteracy, and social programs that keep them there. There is still a “race gap” in public school achievement. Recent test scores in Minnesota underline that fact. Black students score only half as well as their white classmates. Many poor blacks (and whites) have abandoned any semblance of a family structure. They don’t enjoy the protections of marriage, they allow drugs and alcohol to trump caring for children, and those children take up the banner of dysfunction into their futures.
The vividness of the race struggle in this country in the last 150 years — the bloodshed, the goals, the meaning of freedom and full participation in a democracy — have been forgotten. What freedoms have been gained have not accrued to all.
There are people of all races in this country who are fabulously wealthy and powerful. That is a victory for civil rights. There are also people of all races who are abjectly poor, who cannot get a decent education, and who cannot get a decent job. Blacks are disproportionately represented in that demographic.
Friends of mine told me their granddaughter “hates” history. History is the story of where we’ve been. It should be exciting, compelling, instructive, like stories your parents and grandparents tell about your personal history — not something a student “hates.” This country and our children and grandchildren need history, lest the real struggles for freedom for all in the past were for nothing.
We seem to have lost sight of the fact that it is our schools that children of all races depend on to help them gain the knowledge they need to get out of poverty, to be truly free. From the inception of the United States, it has been school where the children of immigrants learned English, learned to read, learned to do math, and learned the customs of their new country, even though their parents were uneducated and lived in a ghetto.
Freedom depends upon an educated populace. We are failing in that regard. Minnesotans, who have an elevated sense of self-worth, who think of themselves as progressive and faultless, also have one of the largest education achievement gaps between whites and blacks in the entire country.
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius claims of the new test scores, “Our scores didn’t go down. It’s a brand new test. It’s a completely different test. Our kids didn’t get dumber in one year.” But we are failing. We are failing a large segment of the population. Thirty percent of our students can’t read or do math. Another large percentage barely pass standardized tests. It has been proven over and over and over, yet the education establishment — government and union, and parents to a certain extent — would rather blame testing than take a good look at how we are teaching. Why can’t kids read? Why do good students “hate” history? How can we do a better job? Where are the answers to those questions?
What’s the point in marking the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “dream” speech if no one remembers what it means? If no one is willing to make that dream a reality?