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Black and Proud: MLK, BLM, and Today’s Education Reformers

Photo: Center for Jewish History, NYC @ Flickr Commons

Sunday marks the 53rd anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Parts of that speech—specifically, the part that asks for judgement based not on the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character—have come to define King and the Civil Rights Movement, privileging a message of unity, hope, and peace. For years, that dominant narrative of racial collaboration and non-violence has persisted.

Now another civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, has emerged. It begs comparison. So, we instinctively turn to what we know best, highlighting the portion of King’s dream that made its way onto inspirational posters and glazing over the gritty parts of that speech—the urgency, the fierceness, the discontent, the “rude awakening” and “whirlwinds of revolt,” the “marvelous new militancy.” And so it’s much more common to hear the Black Lives Matter movement described by how it differs from the civil rights activism of the 1960s, instead of similarities and lessons to be learned. Instead of seeing a continuum, we see conflict: the content of one’s character is pitted against the particular status of black lives.

The desire to define a movement in simple terms, to contain it in 140 characters or less, makes sense. We push the internal conflicts, the doubt, the indecision, and the things left unresolved to the side. And just when we think we can claim victory, e.g., a post-racial society, we are confronted with what festers underneath. How else do we explain the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality” that King admonished on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial showing up even more vividly a half a century later on Facebook live? Would this be the case if we had privileged the grit long ago? If that were the part of the speech we were still citing?

This question plagues activists and talking heads alike, but so, too, does it impact the education reform movement, as advocates debate the role of race and racial justice in creating better schools. Again, there’s much in this conflict to be learned from a movement’s gritty parts.

Consider Annette “Polly” Williams, known to veteran education reformers as a pioneer of school choice. The late Wisconsin state lawmaker spent 30 years representing Milwaukee’s 10th district. She fought to end court-ordered busing, to ensure better healthcare and higher-paying jobs for her constituents, and when she retired in 2011, she was the longest-serving woman in the Wisconsin Legislature.

What Williams did for school choice, however, is what has come to define her. In the late 1980s and early 90s, she pulled together and led an unlikely coalition of conservative Democrats, black Democrats, and Republicans; local black press; and low-income black and Hispanic parents. Together, they rallied to pass a law allowing those parents to use public money to send their kids to private schools so that their children could access the high-quality education their more wealthy peers enjoyed. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was the first of its kind. The program was a catalyst for voucher plans across the nation and sparked the school choice and charter school movement as we know it today. Pick up any account of the early days of school reform, and Polly Williams—the Rosa Parks, the Harriet Tubman, the godmother of school choice—is mentioned.

Williams’s story, however, is so much more complicated and rife with rough edges. Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, remembers Williams as a unifier, willing to put aside race to unleash the power of school choice to change the trajectory of the underserved. But there was also the Williams who chose race over reason without regret—who was, as we would say today, “unapologetically black.” As recently as a few years ago, she told me in an interview that she would still support Justice Clarence Thomas. I was surprised. Here was a woman who had fought hard for many of the issues that Thomas discounts. “Why?” I asked. “I always go with my race,” she said. And, as her four kids tell it, James Brown’s was the only recording they could play loudly in their house. Which one? “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

In fact, it was Williams’s refusal to put aside race that led her to break ties with the unlikely coalition she led to get the first choice legislation passed. In the mid-1990s, when it came time to choose between the immediate viability of a few successful black independent schools and the uncertain expansion of her parental choice program to a hundred plus religious schools, she went with her race. And while she never stopped advocating for Milwaukee’s low-income and minority parents who participated in the choice program, she did speak out harshly against her coalition friends, accusing them of exploiting the needs of black and brown parents to advance their larger agenda, primarily universal vouchers. Ultimately, as she took a stand and chose improving black opportunity and outcomes over improving educational markets, the movement she helped to create went on without her.

Williams sacrificed national notoriety by choosing to keep race at the center of everything she did. Despite being featured in the New York Times in 1997 as one of 13 innovators who changed education, few young education reformers know her story today. But her choice had broader implications for the education reform movement and the kids she cared the most about. Today, as mostly white reformers work to uplift mostly black and brown beneficiaries, the limitations of that paradigm looms. Howard Fuller, veteran parental choice advocate and founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, often reminds his colleagues of this dilemma: “This cannot be the way that this movement operates. The people who are being liberated must be a critical part of their own liberation.” His warning delivered in the spirit of Williams, who identified the problem over 20 years ago: “I cannot support the continuation of dominance of people from the top. People whose lives are going to be changed have got to be a part of it,” she told a reporter for the Washington Times.

At Polly’s funeral two years ago, it was Fuller, her long-time friend (and occasional nemesis), who best described her. Ironically, he turned to King. Not the King of dreams, but the lesser-known, grittier, more militant King. He quoted King’s warning to emerging black leaders that the white establishment was skilled at corrupting them, turning them from being the “representative of the Negro to the white man” into “the white man’s representative to the Negro.” Despite what they might have heard, Fuller told the audience, “Polly Williams never quit being a representative of black people.”

It’s true. But she had to do so on the margins of the education reform movement she helped to create.

What if she hadn’t had to? What if those fighting for parental school choice and better schools for all would have embraced all of Williams—especially her message of black self empowerment? What if the movement had privileged race instead of pushing it aside? Where would it, and, most importantly, the mass of underserved minority and low-income children lacking access to a high-quality education be?

Williams was much like both the Black Lives Matter folks today and the Martin Luther King Jr. we tend to forget—at times uncompromising, unwilling to hide the hard truths, and unapologetically black. With rough edges that make a lot of people uncomfortable but are essential to cutting through the isms of the status quo.

Sunday marks the 53rd anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Let’s continue to mark anniversaries of key events and even work to simplify occasions for quick reference. But let’s be careful about defining a social movement by one move, or an activist by a single act. For black activists, the content of one’s character cannot be separated from the color of one’s skin. And there are lessons to be learned from what lives on the edge.

Author:

Robin V. Harris, Ph.D. is a Class of 2016-2018 Education Policy Fellow at New America, writing a book about the “godmother of school choice,” Wisconsin legislator Annette “Polly” Williams. Harris is the managing editor at The Education Trust, an education advocacy and policy organization.