A New Civil Rights Movement

Posted: Aug 20, 2007 1:07 PM
A New Civil Rights Movement

Two weeks ago Alphonso Jackson and Margaret Spellings sat with a group of civic leaders from around the country at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. The museum was built on the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The room King rented the night before he died remains exactly as it was during his assassination in April of 1968. I have often thought that the Civil Rights Movement was mortally wounded in Memphis and it bled to death over the next ten years or so.

Against this backdrop, Alphonso Jackson made a bold statement, “We are announcing [that] a New Civil Rights Movement begins today.”  What a declaration!  Jackson’s words were not aimed at discrediting or upstaging the heroes of America’s most effective grassroots social justice movement. In a sense his words signaled his desire to complete the work that King and others had done. Jackson’s message to America is that stable homes create an atmosphere for learning and achievement.

One might ask the question, “What can government do to create a more stable home environment?” One answer is that creative housing programs may give incentives to motivated underprivileged families, which will help them develop strong achievement-oriented home lives. Dr. Jackson, joined by Margaret Spellings (Secretary of Education), had just finished a tour of the home of Bobbie Wallace, a resident at Uptown Memphis. Ms. Wallace had been assisted in moving from public housing into her own home. This process had involved two steps – the first was moving from public housing to a Hope VI apartment complex. Her apartment complex (Uptown Memphis) received a 35 million Hope VI grant in 2001. The second step was moving to her own home.  Sixty million dollars of private funding was also invested in order to make 926 units of affordable housing available to Memphis residents.

Secretary Jackson proudly declared at that location, “Bobbie's journey from public housing to rental housing and now to a home is proof of what we say at HUD: with good money management and sound spending habits, families of all income levels can take part in the American Dream and become homeowners.”

For 15 years, the HOPE VI program has been used by HUD to transform substandard public housing into mixed-income and market-based communities. The “mixed use” concept places needy families and/or single parents into a community which helps these troubled people fit into a normal neighborhood that models personal achievement and stability.

HUD cites the specific elements of public housing transformation that they are most proud of as follows:

  • Changing the physical shape of public housing;
  • Establishing positive incentives for resident self-sufficiency and comprehensive services that empower residents;
  • Lessening concentrations of poverty by placing public housing in non-poverty neighborhoods and promoting mixed-income communities.

Prior to visiting the housing complex this “dynamic duo” took a tour of a local school – Humes Middle School. This school is a Tennessee “poster child” for No Child Left Behind. Children’s scores in reading and math improved dramatically between 2004 and 2006. Spellings was also elated that five Memphis schools were removed from Tennessee's “high priority” list because of their improved test scores.

Spellings is a firm believer in combining the power of accountable education with a secure home environment. She made the following statement at Humes, “By providing children with a quality education, we prepare them to make a difference in their communities.”  Elaborating on her opening statement she said, “No Child Left Behind is a commitment to fight the ‘soft bigotry’ of low expectations by strengthening schools and closing the achievement gap.”

The Jackson and Spellings trip actually reveals a new, positive way of addressing the problems of many black and Hispanic children in the U.S. A world-class education is only a ticket out of the financial limitations of the ghetto; it is also a formal invitation into America’s middle class. My personal story is illustrative of this same kind of economic uplift and family development.

In elementary school, I had a special bond with two other boys. We did everything together - played sports, studied, and hung out. I was the worst athlete of the three, but I held my own with them academically. We all attended the most advanced classes in our all black, urban school. This school was staffed by some of the nation’s most committed black teachers.

Of the three of us, I was the only one that had a secure home life with a dad that was always present. My father felt that the public middle schools (grades 7-9) in my neighborhood would not challenge me enough to reach my full potential. Because No Child Life Behind was not even thought of back then, there was no way to tweak the performance of our local schools.

Therefore, my dad enrolled me in a prestigious private school. There was no minority scholarship program and even in the late 1960’s, this school’s tuition ran several thousand dollars a year. My parents scraped together the money and believed for the best. My family’s decision to invest in education changed the course of my life. I was exposed to a myriad of things I would not have ever seen otherwise. My two buddies were not as fortunate. One of them wound up in prison at age 18 for killing a guy in a fight. The other kid (the fastest sprinter in our school), had to work during his high school years instead of playing sports - he eventually became a bus driver for the city of Cincinnati.

In a time in which it is easy to be cynical and disillusioned about the government, I am encouraged by the roundtable in Memphis. Jackson and Spellings are on the right track.  The following words spoken by Alphonso Jackson at the Hume school should be inscribed on the walls there: “We believe that excellence transcends income level …A good education should not be off limits to a family of modest means. Neither should a good home.”