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March 2, 2015 3

From Selma to Ferguson: Standing Together for Justice

We_March_With_Selma

What do you know about the events in Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s? What part of that his­tory speaks to you?

This year marks the 50th anniver­sary of the march from Selma to Mont­gomery, Alabama. In the his­tory books, we know this as Bloody Sun­day, where 600 peace­ful pro­tes­tors were met with bru­tal­ity. As events unfolded, the media cap­tured pho­tos and film of what would later become the impe­tus for thou­sands to become a part of the move­ment. Dr. King and his fol­low­ers focused their cam­paign on Alabama because of the sup­pres­sion of black people’s right to vote there. They knew how impor­tant it was for the world to see the vio­lence and to have those images on its con­scious­ness. They knew that those who believed in equal­ity were not going to be able to sim­ply rest on their beliefs.

The Civil Rights Move­ment  needed action from the com­mu­nity, the nation and the gov­ern­ment and that was the moment when it was needed most.  It is hard to imag­ine the level of com­mit­ment one would need to inten­tion­ally expose one­self to phys­i­cal vio­lence, but that’s exactly what Dr. King asked of them in their fight for jus­tice and equity.  Selma is part of our shared his­tory, and there is no deny­ing that notable progress has been made.  Cur­rent events of the past year are a clear reminder, how­ever, that much work still needs to be done.

Last sum­mer, there was dis­cus­sion through­out the coun­try about Fer­gu­son being the Civil Rights Move­ment for this gen­er­a­tion. We can draw some com­par­isons to Selma, while rec­og­niz­ing that the bla­tant denial of vot­ing rights in 1960 Alabama was an extreme ver­sion of racism. Nightly, we watched as news media deliv­ered images of pro­tes­tors in Fer­gu­son who were angry and frus­trated by the tragic con­se­quences of the insti­tu­tional racism which has had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on their oppor­tu­ni­ties and liveli­hood and the community’s safety. As they had dur­ing Selma, peo­ple from across the coun­try were moti­vated to join in and become a part of some­thing big­ger than them­selves.  Fer­gu­son pro­vided that moment when peo­ple could take action in sup­port of the val­ues of jus­tice and equity we col­lec­tively hold as a nation.  Activism took on many forms, as peo­ple from diverse com­mu­ni­ties descended on Fer­gu­son to add their sup­port to the protest, sim­i­lar to the 8,000 that came to Selma on the third attempt to make their val­ues and beliefs heard.

Selma, Fer­gu­son and all the other events that have raised aware­ness to issues of injus­tice serve as step­ping stones to progress. It’s not enough for us to be con­tent with the advance­ments we’ve made; we need to con­sider how to con­tinue advo­cat­ing for insti­tu­tional change. Civil rights pio­neer, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass said “If there is no strug­gle, there is no progress. Those who pro­fess to favor free­dom, and yet depre­ci­ate agi­ta­tion, are men who want crops with­out plow­ing up the ground. They want rain with­out thun­der and light­ning. They want the ocean with­out the awful roar of its many waters. This strug­gle may be a moral one; or it may be a phys­i­cal one; or it may be both moral and phys­i­cal; but it must be a strug­gle. Power con­cedes noth­ing with­out a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Our beliefs in equity and jus­tice for all peo­ple mean we may have to be will­ing to chal­lenge the insti­tu­tions that are bet­ter served by main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo than by chal­leng­ing it.  Fifty years ago, the peo­ple of Selma faced injus­tice and decided it was time to stand up. We fol­low in their brave foot­steps.  Both Selma and Fer­gu­son pro­vide teach­able moments for edu­ca­tors to share his­tory and sto­ries, teach about bias and injus­tice and inspire stu­dents to take action to cre­ate pos­i­tive change in the world.

 

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January 14, 2015 1

Beyond the Dream, Teaching King in Context

Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Day is Mon­day, Jan­u­ary 19, and many edu­ca­tors will take the oppor­tu­nity to teach about King and his enor­mous con­tri­bu­tions to our soci­ety. As edu­ca­tors, how we approach the teach­ing of this hol­i­day makes an impact on how stu­dents under­stand the larger con­text of the Civil Rights Move­ment and whether they make a con­nec­tion between the past strug­gles to the cur­rent day and their own lives. Here are some thoughts about teach­ing the topic in a mean­ing­ful way:

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, LC-USZ62-126559

Cour­tesy of the Library of Con­gress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Col­lec­tion, LC-USZ62-126559

Focus on what Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. rep­re­sents.  King is an icon, a larger than life fig­ure and a tremen­dous ora­tor. These char­ac­ter­is­tics can lead stu­dents to believe that he sin­gle­hand­edly accom­plished the goals of the Civil Rights Move­ment or that they could never be like King.  It’s impor­tant to put King’s work into the con­text of the larger move­ment of peo­ple that he rep­re­sented.  Stu­dents need to know about King’s life, that he was a leader of all types of “ordi­nary” peo­ple, and it was them – peo­ple of all ages, all walks of life, all dif­fer­ent races and reli­gions – that made the Civil Rights Move­ment possible.

It is impor­tant to under­stand and teach that the Civil Rights Move­ment was a strate­gic, on-going  move­ment with spe­cific objec­tives.  Author Bryan Steven­son talks about the idea that peo­ple today often think of the civil rights move­ment as a 3 day event; “Day One, Rosa Parks gave up her seat on a bus; Day Two, Dr. King led a march on Wash­ing­ton; and Day Three, we signed all these laws.”  This sim­plis­tic view of the Civil Rights Move­ment leaves out all of the impor­tant ele­ments of strat­egy, strug­gle and the actual “move­ment” of the Civil Rights Movement.

Sim­i­larly, it is impor­tant to be spe­cific when talk­ing about King and the Civil Rights Move­ment. Dr. King’s legacy can­not be under­stood with­out talk­ing about big­otry, race and racism.  That may seem obvi­ous, but often edu­ca­tors are hes­i­tant to talk about race.  With thought­ful prepa­ra­tion, how­ever, these issues can be raised in a devel­op­men­tally appro­pri­ate way.  It’s also really use­ful to be spe­cific about the aims of the Civil Rights Move­ment– not just a vague notion of “equal­ity” but a social jus­tice move­ment that was seek­ing to end seg­re­ga­tion, secure vot­ing rights, advo­cate for worker’s rights, and address eco­nomic disparities.

In this way, we have teach­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties that con­nect the past to cur­rent events.  Stu­dents can see both the suc­cess of the Civil Rights Move­ment while also con­nect­ing to what forms of sys­temic dis­crim­i­na­tion and unequal treat­ment exist today.  For exam­ple, exam­in­ing the Vot­ing Rights Act allows for an oppor­tu­nity to ana­lyze the 2013 Supreme Court deci­sion which gut­ted the heart of that law or explore tac­tics like Voter ID laws which sup­press the abil­ity to vote.  Sim­i­larly, focus­ing on the impor­tance of youth involve­ment and lead­er­ship in all aspects of the Civil Rights Move­ment allows for an oppor­tu­nity to learn about cur­rent activism led by youth.  

We know that no edu­ca­tor has the lux­ury or time to focus on all aspects of King’s life and the work of the Civil Rights Move­ment. Choos­ing one spe­cific aspect of King’s life or the Civil Rights Move­ment can give stu­dents more oppor­tu­nity to under­stand and explore, whether focus­ing on Selma or The Children’s Cru­sade or the San­i­ta­tion Work­ers’ Strike in Memphis.

These are just a few exam­ples of the many dif­fer­ent entry points for learn­ing about Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and the work of the Civil Rights Move­ment.  For many, the “go to” entry point is to focus on King’s most famous and most quoted “I Have a Dream” speech, specif­i­cally the end with its lyri­cal, mov­ing rep­e­ti­tion. Because this speech has vivid imagery and phrases that make it easy to teach, it can also be over­sim­pli­fied. We need to go beyond “the Dream” for stu­dents to truly make mean­ing of King’s legacy.  King’s dream was deeply rooted not just in “the Amer­i­can Dream,” but also in that time’s con­text of dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism and big­otry.  How­ever we choose to honor King’s legacy this year, stu­dents’ learn­ing should also be rooted in those con­cepts of injustice.

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October 3, 2014 2

California Takes Lead In Ending School-To-Prison Pipeline

Cal­i­for­nia has once again shown itself to be a leader in pro­mot­ing civil rights and equal­ity for all by ban­ning school sus­pen­sions for K-3rd grade stu­dents and expul­sions for all stu­dents under the sub­jec­tive and often-abused “will­ful defi­ance” stan­dard in the Edu­ca­tion Code.  As part of our mis­sion to fight big­otry of all kinds, ADL has had a long his­tory of sup­port­ing equal access to qual­ity edu­ca­tion for all students—the goal promised in the land­mark Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion Supreme Court rul­ing in 1954.  This momen­tous change in Cal­i­for­nia law, which ADL proudly sup­ported, will bring us a sig­nif­i­cant step closer to that ideal.school-to-prison-pipeline

The new law spec­i­fies that a pub­lic school stu­dent in grades 6–12 may be sus­pended for will­ful defiance—which can be as minor as a dress code vio­la­tion or fail­ure to hand in homework—only after the third offense in a school year, and pro­vided that other means of resolv­ing the behav­ioral prob­lems were first attempted.  The law also pro­hibits a school from rec­om­mend­ing that stu­dent for expul­sion solely for will­ful defi­ance.  The law now encour­ages schools to invest in chil­dren rather than resort­ing to harsh out-of-school dis­ci­pline for rel­a­tively minor offenses.  Its pas­sage will ensure that stu­dents remain where they need to be—in class—and not on the streets or in the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

Although there are many fac­tors that con­tribute to a student’s inabil­ity to thrive in school, the cycle of sus­pen­sions and expul­sions is among the best indi­ca­tors of which stu­dents will drop out.  Stu­dents who drop out of school have more dif­fi­culty find­ing gain­ful employ­ment, have much lower earn­ing power when they are employed, and ulti­mately are more likely to wind up in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.  This trou­bling phenomenon—which dis­pro­por­tion­ately impacts stu­dents of color, stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, and stu­dents who iden­tify as les­bian, gay, bisex­ual or trans­gen­der—has become known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  Work­ing to dis­man­tle the pipeline has become a key focus of ADL’s civil rights and edu­ca­tion agendas.

Both the Los Ange­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict and the San Fran­cisco Uni­fied School Dis­trict have already com­pletely banned sus­pen­sions and expul­sions for will­ful defi­ance, tak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant step towards dis­man­tling the school-to-prison pipeline.  California’s new statewide law will sun­set in three and a half years.  Dur­ing this time, ADL will be work­ing with coali­tion part­ners on new bills and ini­tia­tives to strengthen pro­tec­tions for stu­dents and develop addi­tional alter­na­tive meth­ods for chang­ing neg­a­tive stu­dent behav­iors with pos­i­tive interventions.

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