Keeping Our Promise to America’s Black Students
Historian and Archivist Emeritus of the National Education Association, Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore is an ardent scholar and activist who understands firsthand the powerful relationship between the history of public education and the struggle for social justice. Dr. Gilmore talks candidly with NEA about keeping faith with America’s Black students.
Everyone’s gearing up to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Do you think the nation has lived up to the promise of that historic decision?
Celebrating landmark anniversaries like Brown maintains our consciousness around the most important Supreme Court civil rights decision of the 20th century. We have to remember the courage it took to make that decision.
Before Brown v. Board, Black Southerners measured time before and after slavery, and White Southerners measured time before and after the Civil War. Today, everyone uses the measurement “before and after Brown.” There’s no ambiguity about what schools for Black students were like before Brown. Thurgood Marshall argued the gross disparities very well. In 2014, we’re still trying to come to grips with the full meaning of “after.”
You can’t deny this country has made unimaginable progress. Those who died for the cause could not have dreamed America would factor Black people into its fabric in the way it has, including the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president. Yet there is a lack of educational opportunities and wholesome living conditions for too many underprivileged people in this nation. And the common denominator is always a poor education.
What do current disparities, like the school-to-prison pipeline, tell us about the education of today’s Black students?
Those who lived in the era of Brown v. Board would never have imagined the school-to-prison pipeline that so adversely impacts African-American students. Just as President Eisenhower warned the nation about the future consequences of the military industrial complex, today’s observers are warning us about the prison industrial complex. More Black people in this country are exposed to state-of-the-art correctional institutions than state-of-the-art schools. And we support it by lavishly funding one and grossly underfunding the other. It’s more expensive to incarcerate than educate, but the nation has determined it would rather warehouse these students than educate them.
What can NEA do to support Black students through 21st century challenges?
We’ve got to position ourselves in places where we can make a difference, places with large populations of disadvantaged and underserved Black students: not only inner-city neighborhoods, schools, and historically Black colleges, but institutions of incarceration. NEA needs to advocate for better education programs for incarcerated youth and for heavy recruitment of minority educators. At the same time, we have to work on every social justice front to reduce those incarceration numbers. All stakeholders would have to be on board—from the jailhouse at the local level to the Attorney General, Secretary of Education, and U.S. President at the national level. We must recognize that human beings are in those prisons.
How can NEA encourage more Black students to go into the teaching profession?
Teaching has always been a profession that appealed mostly to first-generation professionals in a family. We’ve got to go to the places with Black youth who are most likely to be the first in their family to attend and graduate from college. We have to have a greater presence among, and stronger message for, guidance counselors in public schools. The strongest departments at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) used to be departments of education. That’s changed. We’ve got to work with HBCUs to turn that around. Educators in increasingly smaller percentages are encouraging their children to go into this profession. We’ve got to work with Black educators to reverse this trend. If you were to ask a room full of Black lawyers, doctors, and journalists, how many of you have parents who are teachers, it would astound you how many would stand up.
At the end of the day, do you have hope for the future?
Hope does spring eternal. I can’t imagine this country can continue to be a world power and neglect such a high percentage of its citizens. And I can’t imagine Black people giving up. The slaves didn’t give up, the sharecroppers didn’t give up, and those working during Jim Crow didn’t give up. They never gave up on the prospect of a fair and democratic America. It’s not in the will of Black people and the will of American people who stand on the right side of history to give up. This country was founded on fundamental principles that on paper are the best in the world. Our march forward is reconciling the reality of those documents with the reality of our lives. We still have a long way to go, but we’re closer to it than ever before in our history. No we’re not giving up; not even close.