As the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is unveiled this week, tens of thousands will assemble at the spot where 38 years ago, Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” and taught Americans a lesson in tolerance, equality, and perseverance.
But for millions of African-Americans, that dream has been deferred. Unemployment, which was 31 percent among black teenagers in 1963 and 32 percent among black teenagers in 1993, is now near 40 percent. Among all blacks, the rate of unemployment is nearly double that of whites.
But the biggest disparity — which can be directly linked to joblessness and poverty — is in education, where America as a nation has fallen behind 17 other industrialized nations. But among blacks, it’s even more dismal, as our youth are more than 25 points behind whites in reading according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress, only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys, and only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys.
And poverty wasn’t at the crux of the disparity, as the study showed that poor whites do just as well as black boys not living in poverty.
What would Dr. King say about that?
Our ancestors were beaten, maimed and killed during slavery, when it was illegal to teach a slave to read. That this is now our reality is shameful.
Perhaps King’s vision of integration failed the black community.
Perhaps integration as it relates to education was one of the worst things to happen to black Americans. Because while the system was definitely separate and unequal, somehow blacks — including King and many others — managed to get a solid education in that unequal system. Our black colleges — Morehouse, Spellman, Howard, Virginia Union, Tuskegee, Morgan State, etc., many of which are now struggling, thrived during segregation.I recently attended the 50th anniversary of my mother’s class reunion at Lucy Laney High School in Augusta, Georgia. The closeness, love and respect that those 200-plus remaining classmates had for one another is something I had never seen before. They felt part of something special — the first black high school in Augusta, erected by a black woman for black children. And the pride they had was palpable.
But more than that, there was sense of community around this school that is rarely seen today. Perhaps their books were inferior. Perhaps their physical school was inferior to the white school across town. But their parents, and their teachers with their commitment to their students, were not.
If King’s dream of racial equality is to be realized, black people must make education a priority, and not wait for the government to get its act together.
Lucy Craft Laney in Augusta didn’t wait. Marva Collins in Chicago, and dozens of other individuals around the country, didn’t wait for the government to get it right.
I’m not saying we should all go out and start a school. But there are quite a few things we can do. Let’s start with the attitude. We must send a message that achievement in the classroom is not “acting white” or selling out or being a nerd.
Read to your children at a young age. Buy them books instead of video games. Instill in them at early what is important. Pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson was struggling in school and classified Special Ed. His mother made him go to the library and write book reports; reports she herself couldn’t read because she was illiterate. That’s a commitment to a child’s success.
Dr. King’s focus was for racial and social justice and for civil rights. Because of his movement, laws changed. But in order for his dream to become the reality, we have to change.
The next movement must focus another R: reading.