Voices in the wilderness

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Sep 20, 2007 12:01 AM
Voices in the wilderness

You may have heard Juan Williams' voice on NPR. He visited Little Rock the other day to open a conference of historians commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Crisis in 1957, a milestone in the history of the American civil rights movement, and I knew I'd have to hear him.

Not because I'm a big fan of NPR's news and opinion, which are fairly indistinguishable. (I know it's old-fashioned, the separation of news and opinion, but I like my editorials clearly labeled as such.) I usually tune in only to find out what today's party line is. It doesn't take long, then I switch to the classical musical station. If I'm lucky, I'll catch some Mozart.

So one morning I'm listening to - steel yourself - "The Diane Rehm Show." Her guest that morning was Juan Williams, and unlike many of her visitors who talk politics, he was making perfect sense. Shocking. I had to keep myself from running off the road in surprise.

Mr. Williams' book and message was summed up in its all-inclusive title: "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America - And What We Can Do About It."

Goodness. Polite, well-bred, moderate-to-a-fault Juan Williams is so perfect an NPR type he could be a Daniel Schorr in the making, forever able to deliver an orthodox liberal riff no matter what the news. But today he sounded mad as hell. What had happened?

All the race hustlers who've usurped the leadership of the civil rights movement (which stopped moving years ago) had finally gotten to our author. Mild-mannered Mr. Williams was taking off the gloves. Clark Kent had turned into Superman. It was exhilarating.

Whom did he bring to mind? His style was different, but his message was much the same as that of Bill Cosby, the comedian who has a knack for saying serious things.

Not too long ago Mr. Cosby outraged an NAACP convention that he was only supposed to entertain. Instead, he took note of the sad state of black America, which isn't exactly news. But then he went on to commit heresy. He pointed out that today's racial problems were only made worse by the same old panaceas offered by the same old outfits like the NAACP - more grievance-collecting, more racial preferences, more blame games and less self-reliance the whole, less than self-respecting racket.

And now Juan Williams was preaching from the same text, if in his own well-modulated voice. He sounded like a Bill Cosby for the carriage trade. Talk about a driveway moment. I had to stop and listen to the whole thing. It was even better than Bach.

Later I learned that Juan Williams' book had been complimented by one of my heroes, Nat Hentoff, a columnist whose support for every decent movement in American politics for the past half-century spans both the civil rights and pro-life movements. Wrote Hentoff: "(Bill) Cosby's spirit and energizing candor courses through an important new book - Juan Williams' ŒEnough.' "

Hentoff added that Mr. Williams' message "would have gladdened the heart of my friend the late Bayard Rustin, a key strategist for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." How sad that he needed to identify Bayard Rustin, the idealist and activist who organized the March on Washington in 1963, among many another dream he pursued till it became reality.

But today Bayard Rustin's name has fallen into historical obscurity - another sign of our sad times, when it's how much noise a leader makes that counts, not whether he makes sense.

So I had to hear Juan Williams when he came to town. He did not disappoint. He raised the pointed question: What good is ending Jim Crow in American public schools if the effect has been to produce over-funded, under-performing, resegregated school systems in our inner cities? Like the notorious one in our nation's capital.

He was even honest enough to volunteer that he wasn't sending any child of his to Washington's public schools. As a father he was not about to sacrifice his children to an empty political ideology. Can anyone blame him?

Dismal results follow whenever an inner-city school district falls into the hands of teachers' unions that are more interested in their pay and perks than in students' progress.

For an example to beware, note all the turmoil that has erupted on Little Rock's own school board this past year. Its great accomplishment was to get rid of a school superintendent whose driving ambition was to make Little Rock a high-performing urban school district.

Juan Williams used the same phrase George W. Bush does to identify today's great danger to equal rights in education - the soft bigotry of low expectations.

So where do we go from here? Observers like Juan Williams and Bill Cosby have the right idea: The next great civil rights issue should be the quality of public education - and how to raise it. Student by student, lesson by lesson, grade by grade. What's the point of gaining equal access to public schools if those schools fail to educate?

The true revolutionary doesn't just commemorate the past but builds on it. The next great civil rights leader will not just walk in the footsteps of the ones 50 years ago, but seek what they sought: an equal opportunity to achieve, not just an equal chance at ignorance.