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Two Become One in the Name of Education

Celebrating 50 years of partnership with the American Teachers Association

[Editor’s Note: This piece was adapted from a longer, four-part installment that was written by Sabrina Holcomb, and appeared in a 2006 issue of NEA Today.]

Fifty years ago, in a dimly lit Miami Beach convention center—during a time of nationwide racial turmoil—two men contemplated the words on the historic documents they were about to sign.

President R. J. Martin, leader of the American Teachers Association (ATA), an organization representing teachers of color during the time of legal segregation, and Richard Batchelder, then-president of the National Education Association (NEA) were about to take the unprecedented step of joining their two organizations together.

After over four decades of collaboration, unifying ATA and NEA seemed like a natural next step, but when the idea was first introduced in the 1940s, there was definite pushback. Some affiliates met the proposal with a lukewarm reception, while others remained adamant about staying separate. At the time, 16 states and the District of Columbia had separate Associations for Black and White teachers.

Between the 1940s and the 1960s, only four states merged racially segregated affiliates. In 1964, NEA delegates passed a resolution requiring racially segregated affiliates to merge, and two years later, at the Representative Assembly, NEA and ATA became one.

After signing the documents blending the two organizations into one, both men rose to their feet. The crowd that had assembled to witness the new beginning began to sing, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic rang out wall to wall. History had been made. Together, they would fight for the improvement of the nation’s public education system.

On the pages that follow, we celebrate the anniversary of this monumental merger with a look back at the growth that has taken place since ATA and NEA joined together. Reflections by Arkansas State Sen. Linda Pondexter Chesterfield, and former NEA Executive Committee member, provide an on-the-ground account of the significance of this partnership.

A Call to Action

Though 1966 marks the beginning of an official partnership, the organizations have a rich history together dating back to 1926. Then, race-based segregation was legal in all school and state Associations. The Supreme Court ruling dating back to the late 1800s, allowed for “separate, but equal” facilities and services based upon race, as long as the facilities provided to each race were of “equal” standard.

But education for Black students was far from fair. Black students learned in schools and received materials that were far beneath what was provided to their White counterparts. Similarly, many of the opportunities that were available to Whites were far from the reach of Black students.

Black students seeking graduate degrees also had to overcome barriers of inequality. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) did not evaluate and accredit Black schools, which blocked Black students from acceptance into many colleges and universities, especially those that were predominantly White. While many Black students were able to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities, where they received a high-quality education, the Supreme Court’s doctrine of “separate but equal” effectively sentenced many Black students to unequal funding, resources, and opportunities for most of their educational career.

After deciding enough was enough, NEA and ATA created their first joint committee to fight for equal evaluation of Black schools. They were successful, and SACS agreed to add Black schools to the evaluation process. It would become the first step in a long journey toward ensuring equality for all students and their teachers.

A Partnership for the Years

Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education victory—which overruled the “separate but equal” Supreme Court ruling by making racial segregation in public schools illegal—the NEA-ATA committee was hopeful that all students could receive a quality education. The  ATA contributed more money to the Brown v. Board of Education legal defense fund than any other single Black organization. Unfortunately, that hope was short-lived. Following the federal ruling, school districts in 17 states used court-ordered desegregation as an excuse to dismiss hundreds of Black teachers. Black teachers were also dismissed for their involvement in voter registration drives that were central to the civil rights movement.

Under the organization name NEA, the NEA-ATA committee organized a $1 million fund to help support Black teachers who had been recently fired. The fundraiser lasted a year, with NEA asking each member to contribute at least one dollar. Teachers across the country answered NEA’s call.

The “new” NEA found a renewed strength and direction going forward. NEA continued the mission of objecting to unfair treatment of Black educators, and the organization widened its scope to include fair treatment for all minority populations, including women.

A Shared Mission Going Forward

Three months after the merger, NEA sponsored a major conference on bilingual education and the needs of Spanish-speaking students. The NEA conference led directly to the passage of the 1968 Bilingual Education Act, under the leadership of Braulio Alonso, NEA’s first Hispanic president. This act ensured the needs of limited English speaking students, and English language learners (ELL) were recognized through innovative education programs.

NEA remained active in the civil rights movement, supporting a voter registration campaign in Selma, Ala., for Black educators under the slogan, “Fit to Teach, Fit to Vote.” Teachers also participated in the famous five-day civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The national media covering the march set up headquarters at the Alabama Education Association. In 1968, NEA established the Human and Civil Rights Division to tackle a variety of issues affecting minority education. During this same time, Elizabeth Duncan Koontz was elected NEA’s first Black president.

State Sen. Pondexter Chesterfield joined NEA less than a year after the merger, today she remembers NEA as an organization that demonstrated its mission for inclusion. When looking back at the leadership of NEA, State Sen. Pondexter Chesterfield says she still sees the NEA she knew and rooted for from the beginning. “When you look at the leaders at NEA, you are talking about an organization that has been deliberate in pushing and supporting individuals of color who would offer themselves for service in the organization.”

Today, NEA continues to lead education into new territories as it focuses on social and education justice issues such as institutional racism. In 2015, delegates to the NEA Representative Assembly gave unanimous approval to a NEW Business Item calling for a plan to fight racism and a redirection of NEA resources toward efforts like closing the school-to-prison pipeline. Fueled by excessive suspension and expulsion practices disproportionately meted out to students of color, NEA has worked to close the pipeline and ensure that marginalized public school students live their lives behind desks rather than behind bars.  

NEA has also worked for gender equity, hosting teacher webinars, and conducting  studies on the leadership gap to help educators understand and support girls’ leadership development, and to shape perceptions among all students about girls’ and women’s suitability for leadership.

Work towards LGBTQ inclusion within the classroom is also a top NEA priority. Most recently, NEA has partnered with like-minded organizations to produce the guide Schools in Transition. Aimed at parents and educators, the publication creates a roadmap for educators and parents on building environments that are safe and supportive for all transgender students.

While the 2016 presidential campaign rhetoric has been filled with anti-immigrant sentiments, NEA continues to support programs for ELL students and immigration reform. NEA has a strong partnership with OWN the DREAM, a national campaign that works to provide legal services and support for immigrants, and NEA members work with DREAMers to help them achieve their goal of accessing higher education.

When asked what she believes is the most pressing issue of inclusion today, State Sen. Pondexter Chesterfield responds, “Even though we are not talking about a physical merger anymore, we must have the merger of the minds—that no child will be in this country without a quality public education… and that every child will be treated fairly in the marketplace that is education.”

A merger of the minds happened this past month at NEA’s annual Representative Assembly, when NEA members and delegates came together to discuss the future of education. They also celebrated the union cementing NEA’s commitment toward inclusion, and experienced a photographic exhibit and a documentary featuring the voices of civil rights leaders and NEA and ATA leadership past and present.

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