King’s Message: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

My friend Staley Keith was telling me about his childhood in North Carolina – “Jesse country,” he said, “and I don’t mean Jackson.” Staley meant the North Carolina of Jesse Helms, the outspoken segregationist* who would serve five terms in the United States Senate. “Us black kids walked to our black school every morning and had to go by the white school.  They shouted racial obscenities and threw rocks at us.”  No fun, recalled Staley.  But one morning he woke up to the news that North Carolina schools had to be integrated.  And Staley recalls his first thought, “We gotta go to school with these m—–r f——rs.”

To a large extent, much of the story of American education over these last fifty years is a story of the failure to understand the complexity of our country’s relationship to race and the deep consequences of integration.  As Jefferson said of slavery, “[W]e have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”**

Unfortunately, on the ground, in classrooms all over the country, the interplay between justice and self-preservation has not had happy results for African Americans.

I once asked another friend of mine, an African American, who grew up in a small northern town, whether, given the choice, he would send his children to an all-black school that scored high on the state tests or to an integrated school with low test scores. And he said, “the integrated school.”  He voted for self-preservation; he knew that the white kids, though less educated, would grow up to run the town and he wanted his children to know them.

These are some of the Hobbesian choices we have forced on African-Americans since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.  The outcomes for African Americans have been modest at best; catastrophic at worst.  Not just because of Brown, but because the integration that Brown demanded coincided with what has been a prolonged period of educational deterioration.

And this is why I am fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s cautionary words, from 1959, about Brown:

I favor integration on buses and in all areas of public accommodation and travel….  I am for equality. However, I think integration in our public schools is different. In that setting, you are dealing with one of the most important assets of an individual — the mind. White people view black people as inferior. A large percentage of them have a very low opinion of our race. People with such a low view of the black race cannot be given free rein and put in charge of the intellectual care and development of our boys and girls.

When I first read those words, in a 2004 New York Times book review by Samuel Freedman, it was a Eureka moment – to know that the great civil rights leader appreciated not just the significance of an education but the dangers of partnering with an education system that was still very much a white-run institution.  The facile assumption on the part of far too many integrationists is that all blacks needed to do was rub elbows with whites to get a good education.  To put it succinctly, King was right to be suspicious.

It was E.D. Hirsch who first articulated the pedagogical dangers of this short-sighted notion in his 1987 classic, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Though he is one of the most misunderstood of our modern education theorists (most educators I know claim to have read him; few have), one of his great insights was the importance of the difference between a conservative education and the radical or liberal political outcomes that can flow from it.  As he wrote early in CL:

The claim that universal cultural literacy would have the effect of preserving the political and social status quo is paradoxical because in fact the traditional forms of literate culture are precisely the most effective instruments for political and social change.

This is one of the core findings of Hirsch’s impressive body of research these last twenty-five years.  And in those early pages of CL Hirsch proceeded with a wonderfully counterintuitive reading of The Black Panther, “a radical and revolutionary newspaper if ever this country had one.”  Indeed, after offering long excerpts from the paper, including a section from the Black Panther Party platform that quotes verbatim from the Declaration of Independence, though without attribution, Hirsch writes,

The writers for the The Black Panther had clearly received a rigorous traditional education in American history, in the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, the Gettysburg Address, and the Bible, to mention only some of the direct quotations and allusions in these passages. They also received rigorous traditional instruction in reading, writing, and spelling. I have not found a single misspelled word in the many pages of radical sentiment I have examined in that newspaper.

One can find many allusions to classic American and ancient texts in King’s own writing, testament to the “good” education he received.

Many years before I met Hirsch (for a Life magazine story I wrote in 1991), I stumbled upon a collection of essays by Richard Stern, a professor of English at the University of Chicago. (Pity the person who had to be in the same department as Saul Bellow.)  The collection was titled, The Books in Fred Hampton’s Apartment, after a short and brilliant essay on page 70 that recounted Stern’s visit to the Black Panther leader’s apartment just after he was gunned down by Chicago police in a predawn raid in December of 1969.  “Violent death does not make for good housekeeping,” Stern writes, “nor do lawyers, pathologists, tourists, and guides, but it was clear that this apartment had never been an idyllic place to either live or die.”   But Stern spotted the books, “scattered here and there in the apartment, some open, as if reading had been interrupted and were to be resumed the next day,” and noted, “to a bookish man the books changed almost everything.”  Stern writes,

The books in the Monroe Street apartment spoke of self-improvement, of purposive learning, of curiosity. Here are the titles I wrote down: Introduction to Embryology; Chabod, Machiavelli and the Renaissance; James T. Farrell, The Face of Time; Hannah Arendt, Imperialism (a paperback selection from The Origins of Totalitarianism); Black Rage; Ashley Montague, The Direction of Human Development; Linus Pauling, No More War; Vertebrates; Calculus; Struik, The Origins of American Science; American Political Dictionary….

The list – and Hampton’s violent end – puts a sad exclamation mark on Hirsch’s sanguine observation about the Panthers and education.  But it also spoke volumes about King’s prescient observation about the perils of turning young black minds over to a system that was not only racist (overtly and covertly) but already in the throes of a new, anti-academic wave, one that would throw several generations of African-American youth under the school bus.

About the same period, and not far from where Hampton died, a group of black activists, under the leadership of the Reverend Arthur M. Brazier, was organizing around much the same premise: self-determination.  In his 1969 book, Black Self-Determination: The Story of the Woodlawn Organization Brazier writes,

History has shown that black people cannot rely on the moral integrity of organized white society to give power to black people voluntarily. It must be wrested from that society.

I was lucky enough to meet Brazier in 2010, not long before he died, at a thrilling Harlem Children’s Zone conclave in Manhattan, an event crowded with African-Americans, including members of a presidential administration led by a man who had, finally, wrested power from that white society.  It was enough to see the gleam in Brazier’s eye to know of his pride. And I was also honored that that introduction came from Charles Payne, professor of social work at the University of Chicago and author of So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. Payne’s book is brilliant and should be read by all education policymakers, but today, in honor of Martin Luther King, I want to call attention to the Epilogue (as I have done before), where Payne tells the story of William J. Moore, “grandson of a fugitive slave,” who opened a “first class elementary school” in West Cape May, New Jersey, for the black “yard men, delivery ‘boys’, dockhands, truck drivers, casual laborers, and factory workers” who serviced the white tourists of Cape May.   This was the late 19th century and Moore ran his school for 53 years, a school his father attended. As Payne writes,

When I was a boy, I thought all Black men recited poetry and prose. When my father got together with his boyhood friends, it was not at all unusual for someone to start reciting Shakespeare and for someone else to follow that with some quatrains from the Rubaiyat, which might be followed by bits of Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson.

As Payne concludes,

Mr. Moore and his school were a kind of counternarrative, daily giving the lie to the narrative of Black intellectual inferiority.  At first glance, the issues of contemporary urban education seem far removed from the world of William Moore and his children. I’m not sure that’s really true, though. The search for prescriptions can be dangerous if we let it, but I don’t know that all our work has given us a better model for educating children from the social margins than William Moore seems to have had in 1895. Give them teaching that is determined, energetic, and engaging. Hold them to high standards. Expose them to as much as you can, most especially the arts. Root the school in the community and take advantage of the culture the children bring with them…. Recognize the reality of race, poverty, and other social barriers, but make children understand that barriers don’t have to limit their lives….  Above all, no matter where in the social structure children are coming from, act as if their possibilities are boundless.

Unfortunately, too much of the story of school integration for blacks has been what King predicted: a feast of junk food served up by educators who have too little respect for the black race, much less “the mind” of their children.  It is one of the least-mentioned tragedies of King’s assassination – that he could not live to join the education reform movement and help stamp out the fires of mediocrity that have burned almost out of control these last 50 years.

In his Times review Samuel Freedman quotes W.E.B. Du Bois, writing in The Journal of Negro Education in 1935:

[T]he Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.

As Don Hirsch told me when I asked how his famously content-rich curriculum would deal with students’ self-esteem challenges, he smiled, “The best way to teach children self esteem is by teaching them something.”

The best way to honor Martin Luther King would be to commit ourselves to delivering that rigorous, comprehensive, and, ultimately liberating education.  Indeed, it would be the best way to let freedom ring for future generations.

-Peter Meyer

This also appears on Board’s Eye View.


*Said Helms in a 1963 television interview: ”The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that has thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and commerce and interfere with other men’s rights.” See Kevin Sack, the New York Times.

**For those who have never seen this quote before, it may need some explanation. In short, the founders, as we know, lived in a slaveholding culture and many, like Jefferson, were themselves slaveholders. They live with the Hobbesian choice: to win freedom from England or throw the young country into a potentially catastrophic fight over slavery, one of the key economic bulwarks of the South. The proof of the rightness of Jefferson’s comment came when Lincoln let go of the wolf’s ear and the nation was thrown into the bloody catastrophe of the Civil War.

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