Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Past and Present: Educators Discuss Parallels in Civil Rights Struggles and the Intersection or Civil Rights and Education

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Past and Present: Educators Discuss Parallels in Civil Rights Struggles and the Intersection or Civil Rights and Education

Article excerpt

The recent massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, put many in remembrance of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The incident was largely considered a tipping point in the civil rights movement and played a pivotal role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act the following year.

Dr. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C, recently said that such painful moments in American history have often yielded opportunities for change on a national scale, and with recent headlines seeming to signal a return to those times, many are wondering from whence the change will come for the current generation.

Dr. Norman Francis served at the helm of Xavier University in Louisiana for 47 years before retiring this past spring. He says he is concerned that the pained history of the era in which he was raised is repeating itself in the present day.

"I came through the civil rights movement and I lived under Plessy v. Ferguson and the like, and when I hear about ID cards to vote, I think of poll taxes. That's what it was when poor people in the South ... couldn't even walk up to the polling places to register to vote if they hadn't paid their poll taxes," says Francis. "And now they say you can't vote without a photo ID card, as if everybody's got a photo ID card."

Race still matters

Many have watched in horror as the present-day replication of what was a painful and tumultuous history for Blacks, specifically Black men, in America is playing out in cities across the country.

"Consider that Ferguson happened not far from where Dred Scott brought his initial claim to assert his claims to citizenship," says Lisa A. Crooms, associate dean of academic affairs at the Howard University School of Law. The court in that case went to great lengths to prove Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States, but also not a person, she adds.

"What was supposed to happen between Dred Scott and now ... [was] moving property to persons ... and from persons to citizens. That is a transition that we have not fully made" for African-Americans in this country, she adds. "We're in the midst of another contestation as it pertains to citizenship."

But University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, who was born and raised in Birmingham and whose childhood friend was one of the girls who died in the Birmingham bombing, says people are quick to try to localize the recent incidents, rather than recognizing they are part of a broader national problem.

"If people think that it's about one city, then they are naive," Hrabowski says, adding, "I think sometimes it makes people feel better to say that it's a one-city problem, rather than an American problem."

Francis agrees, saying, "There is a quality of life issue in this country where we haven't closed the gap for minorities in where they should be and the playing field is not equal. I've said it and I'll say it many times when I talk: race, creed, color and gender still matter in this country."

Francis says that dealing with race, rather than ignoring it and attempting to conceal it under the banner of post-racism, is one area in which the nation could take notice from historically Black colleges and universities.

"[Race] matters and unless we deal with it, as we have at HBCUs, then the whole country's at risk," he says. "I'm concerned that, if anybody doesn't understand the past, they're about to repeat it, and it's going to be much broader than it was in the past before, because we won't be able to maintain our place in the global society unless we educate more young people of all races."

Education is pivotal

Hrabowski, however, believes there is one critical difference in the situation African-Americans faced in the 1960s and the situation present in the country today: "In the '60s, unfortunately, there were very few people who were educated, African-Americans or others. …

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