By Mikel Kwaku Oshi Holt
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fervent advocate for education.
Like his contemporary (and frequent adversary) Malcolm X, King believed education was Black America’s “passport” to opportunity, and eventual equality and justice.
While Martin and Malcolm rode on different philosophical and tactical trains, they travelled on the same track, both believing it would lead to the ultimate destination socioeconomic equality.
Education was the fuel that motored both trains, including the importance of ‘segregated’ Black institutions like Morehouse, where King began his studies at the tender age of 15.
Malcolm never walked across a college stage, but received a Ph.D. from the University of Life, with a major in community education and militancy.
Most followers of the two renowned African American leaders would assume that had they lived, Malcolm would have been at the vanguard of the school choice movement; viewing it in its proper context as a catalyst for Black empowerment.
And King (special interests have tried to convince us), would be a proponent for integrated public schools as the cure-all for inequality. Moreover, given his track record in advocating for unions, he would provide blind support for that special interest group.
That latter foolhardy and myopic assumption ranks right up there with the statement from his son, Martin III. He said that had his father lived, he would have cured America of the cancer of racism. (Yeah, he actually said that!)
Naw, if we were to believe the teachers union, which has blocked every major educational reform that would level the playing field for Black students, King would have stood next to the union officials as they blocked the door to educational options.
In other words, the drum major would have helped put a chain around the ankles of destitute and desperate Black children who were crying out to secure the same educations the teachers’ children receive. In fact, the same King himself received.
Make no mistake, King was indeed a strong supporter of unions. But he also benefitted from attending the first Georgia school opened specifically for Black students and later a HBCU.
He did so while being denied the opportunity to eat at public accommodations, to vote in certain southern communities and to be denied basic rights he learned about in school.
Moreover, King fully recognized that many–if not most–government schools have become as much an obstacle to Black educational equality as the conservative Christian church community was during the Black Holocaust (American enslavement of kidnapped Africans), and the two centuries leading up to the civil rights movement.
Read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and substitute “government (public) schools” for churches, and you realize that King made a distinction between the doctrine of the ‘White Conservative Christianity’ and the ‘Liberation Theology’ he preached.
You would also realize that King recognized political labels like ‘liberal’ and ‘moderate’ are often masks that obscure hidden agendas that are often contrary to Black empowerment, much less equal opportunity.
I draw attention to this dichotomy because much of the country is commemorating a delusional caricatured version of King this week, one that is conceived by special interests, including teachers’ unions, to validate hidden agendas that include pacifying and misleading Black America.
The King taught in government schools today is a non-offensive—albeit flawed— cartoon whose sole agenda was the moral overthrow of insignificant policies through peaceful demonstration. They rarely mention his call for an end to the war in Vietnam, colonization by racist governments and his poor people’s campaign. All King sought was for Colored people to enter a public restaurant and eat next to White people.
Black celebrations generally commemorate a different tone, one rooted in liberation and a redistribution of American wealth. For us, King espoused a different Christian credo, along with tactics that included boycotts, disruptions of commerce and government, and in some cases, self-empowerment.
People forget that the Montgomery bus boycott was successful in part because the organizers created an independent transportation service. School desegregation campaigns frequently included the creation of community schools following walk outs like the one that occurred in Milwaukee.
But if you believe the hype as presented by sponsors of many King programs in Milwaukee and around the country, King never found fault with government schools other than their unwillingness to have a Black child sit next to a White one.
If they both received a poor education, that was OK, as long as they were holding hands while slipping through the cracks.
If Martin or Malcolm were alive today, do you believe they would have remained silent while acknowledging half of our tribe’s children don’t graduate, and a major percentage of those who do could not meet the qualifications to attend Morehouse.
Would the dynamic duo put their heads in the sand if they visited Milwaukee and learned first-hand that we host the smallest reading proficiency rates in the country for African American fourth and eighth graders? Or that we have the widest gap between Black and White student achievement?
Would they applaud the teachers at North Division who “taught” the 10 children accepted into college two years ago who had to take remedial education for a full year, including the valedictorian?
In fact, can you honestly suggest King (there’s no doubt about Malcolm) would have told at-risk Black children who are underserved in government schools that they cannot attend any of the charter schools listed by the state of Wisconsin as the best schools in the city?
Or would M&M blindly agree with the premise offered by several teachers and the union that represents them that “Black children can’t learn because they are poor (which some believe is a code word for inferior).”
Yep, just like the poor children attending Milwaukee College Prep, Marcus and Messmer Prep. Yet they not only excel, but over 80% go on to college, and don’t have to waste time learning how to read or write.
I’m sure they would have seen a need for greater resources for government schools.
I’m sure they would agree that teachers deserve merit pay, updated curriculums and better resources. The only area where they might differ on is the need for more African American teachers.
But those positions would not have negated their support for educational options, including private sectarian schools.
Surely he wouldn’t’ block the door for church sponsored schools because it was King who once declared, “education without morals is like a ship without a compass, merely wandering nowhere.”
Similarly, Milwaukee’s Sister Clara Muhammad School is a byproduct of the American Muslim community of which Malcolm was a member.
And as for the unions?
I can’t see Martin supporting entities that block Black empowerment or lambaste any Black leader who questions their agenda.
Do you honestly think Martin Luther King, Jr. would have marched with local union members who paraded outside then-School Board Director Wendel Harris’s home carrying signs calling him an “Uncle Tom” because he supported a contract with a charter school that has a far better record than most MPS schools?
Or that Martin would have bit his lip when the head of the teacher’s union called former First Lady Michelle Obama a “traitor” because she visited a charter school during a visit to Milwaukee?
It’s apropos to have this discussion as the Democratic presidential sweepstakes is entering its final months. Our loudest retort is that none of the candidates are even discussing education beyond superficial rhetoric about early childhood funding, and free technical college programs.
I guarantee each of them praised King during the past week, but none talked about his campaigns beyond the sound bites provided by speech writers.
King once fought for integrated public education but received only desegregation as his reward. He fought for equality of opportunity, but was killed before he realized that educational apartheid is the rule of the land.
I’m sure he would have been traveling today with the scores of Black and Hispanic parents who have confronted Senator Elizabeth Warren and other candidates who would destroy the school choice movement at the behest of the unions—or at the very least take the teeth out of it.
And just like he challenged Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, I’m sure Martin would have demanded more than the same old tired and redundant political rhetoric and pacification in exchange for the Black vote.
I’m confident he would have talked about education as the new civil rights battlefield, but he also would have asked the candidates what they would do for Black Milwaukee in general, considered the worst city in the United States for African Americans and the home of seven negative social indicators including incarceration, poverty and unemployment.
But it was also the “Drum Major for Peace” who declared: “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
Would that include an analysis of the two-party system, their platforms and their prioritization of special interests who hinder Black progress?
There is a danger, King would admit, to providing a slave with a good education. History reveals that once he or she learns of freedom, the slave will do anything to escape the plantation, including abandoning those who have assisted in maintaining the status quo; in miseducating and stagnating the intellectual growth of several generations of our children.
Surely, the well-read King was a student of Carter G. Woodson’s philosophy as espoused in his book, “The Miseducation of the Negro?”
Was it not King who said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think criticallyI Intelligence, plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
But how to obtain that goal?
I would guess that Martin would support his brother Malcolm, who said we should obtain our freedom—our passport—“by any means necessary.”