Education: the Key to Freedom

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

by Maritza Menendez


There is no doubt that blacks in America have been discriminated against and oppressed. Since the age of exploration, they have been bought and sold, forced into slavery, beaten, segregated, and kept from obtaining basic human rights like the right to an education or the right to vote. Fortunately, from 1954 to 1968, the Civil Rights Movement made great strides towards providing black Americans some of the rights that they had been denied for far too long. Black activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis fought long and hard via peaceful means to obtain most of the freedoms that blacks have today. For example, in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the Constitution, the United States abolished slavery, granted civil rights and suffrage rights regardless of race.  However, these post Civil War Amendments were not immediately enforced, especially in the South. It was through the hard work and determination of the civil rights activists that these amendments were actually implemented. Still, further could be done to achieve a more equal society. In America today, black Americans, as a demographic group, continue to fall behind in educational attainment. Therefore, improving the resources available to impoverished youths, creating a broad-based curriculum that includes an exploration of black heritage and culture, and providing a sense of black solidarity, ideas central to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) ‘black power,” would provide for greater equality of opportunity.

Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, blacks were forced to attend segregated schools that were anything but “separate and equal.” The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education overturned segregation in schools with the intent to create a more equal educational system through racial integration in schools. However, in 1974 Milliken v. Bradley ruled that “desegregation plans could not require students to move across school-district lines.”  Furthermore, “the decision exempted suburban schools from shouldering the burden of desegregating inner city schools causing “white flight” from cities to suburbs.”[1]  This phenomenon caused the poorer districts to be left with the task of desegregation and it also meant less financial support for these schools. Nevertheless, education has proven to be key to gaining civil liberties. After all, people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis who pushed for civil rights had a higher education. This level of education was needed in order to lead their people towards freedom. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a Ph.D. from Boston University.  He was well read and well spoken. He was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  It is no surprise that he was able to lead the Civil Rights Movement.  He knew the law and understood how to work around it. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he explained about just and unjust laws, describing them as “a code that is out of harmony with the moral law and any law that degrades human personality.”[2]  He believed in nonviolent civil disobedience and that nonviolent tension could prove to be constructive. He stated, “tension in society would help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”[3]

John Lewis was a student at Fisk University when he rose to become a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He is also well read and well spoken. As a matter of fact, he is currently a US Congressman for the state of Georgia. He was the Chairman of the SNCC from 1963 – 1966. During his time at SNCC, he helped organize sit-ins and the March on Washington.

Mr. Lewis admired Dr. King and agreed with his peaceful methods of civil disobedience although he had a tendency to be more assertive than Dr. King. 

In 1966, when Stokely Carmichael rose to power within the SNCC, Mr. Lewis left the organization. Carmichael had also joined the Civil Rights Movement while in college. That was when the term “Black Power” evolved. It was a belief that “an all-black project was needed in order for the people to free themselves.”[4] SNCC felt that blacks were intimidated by whites and could not properly vent their frustrations amongst whites. Therefore, “a climate had to be created whereby blacks could express themselves.”[5] It suggested that blacks “cut themselves off from white people”.[6]  SNCC’s position paper on black power stated, “We must form our own institutions, credit unions, co-ops, political parties, write our own histories.”[7] In a nutshell, it was proposing black self-determination. This meant that blacks needed to determine their own destinies set apart from the white people.  In addition, SNCC spoke about “rejecting the American dream as defined by white people and working to construct an American reality defined by Afro-Americans.”[8] It believed in uniting the black race in order to rise above the injustices suffered by blacks. 

Many of the problems that young, African-Americans face today stem from a lack of education. In a 2010 NPR interview, titled “A Bleak Picture for Young Black Male Students,” the guest disclosed a report provided by the Schott Foundation which showed that more than half of African American males do not graduate from high school. John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation, told NPR that only 47% of black males are graduating, which means that America is losing 50% of its product. He stated that, “As we know, any corporation that loses 50% of its product is left behind.”[9] Mr. Jackson attributes this partly to resources available.  For example, he said that in places like New Jersey where there is a high black, male population there are more resources that provide access to early education. This seems to show a better outcome.   

Another point that was made by an African-American caller was that his GPA was low in high school (just enough to graduate).  However, when he attended college and was able to declare a major of Africana Studies his GPA went up considerably. He emphasized the importance of cultural education among blacks. He said that being exposed to the works of African-American poets changed his thinking. Mr. Jackson also agreed that “it’s important to find ways to engage young black males in reading and mathematics because these are the skills that they’re going to need to be successful.”[10] These points substantiate the SNCC’s ideas about working together, as a race, to rise above all of the injustices and to gain self-determination.                  

In another NPR interview from 2011, NPR host Michel Martin talked to Marc Morial, the President of The National Urban League.  This league is a civil rights organization based in New York City, which works to protect African- Americans against racial discrimination in the U.S.  The league provides an annual report called “The State of Black America” which indicates how blacks compare in regards to whites as far as economic opportunity. According to Mr. Morial, in 2011, “the joblessness rate in black America was almost 16% or twice as high as the overall rate.”[11]  Mr. Morial talked about the low graduation rate among African-Americans and how the economy requires higher levels of education and skill in order to find and keep a job.  He stated, “So, long-term, fixing the problem of education is going to be key.”[12]    

In addition to the reports that indicate the low graduation rates and joblessness rates among blacks, a poll by the Pew Research Center shows a division in the black community. Juan Williams, NPR’s senior correspondent states, “37% of African-Americans say that blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.”[13] Apparently, lower-income black people feel like they do not have much in common with poor or middle class blacks in the US. They feel a gap in the level of education between them as well as in the work situation. Also, 53% of black Americans feel that those who are not thriving are responsible for their own problems. They blame lack of education, values, and separation of families not racism for the continued oppression of blacks. One caller (Ms. Lenore Philip) stated that, “there are very few upper-class blacks that reach out to the lower class.”[14] This indicates that class rather than race is what’s dividing African-Americans at this point in time. 

In conclusion, recent research reinforces the fact that education is the foundation for success. If African-Americans unite and advocate the idea of higher education in their communities, they can establish greater opportunities for one another.  A higher education provides leadership skills. Leaders (like King, Lewis, and Carmichael) can make a difference in their communities and for their race. This is what SNCC meant by black self-determination. SNCC suggested that blacks re-evaluate themselves in order to find their identity and that they ask themselves, “Who are black people, what are black people, what is their relationship to America and the world?”[15]  The best way to do that is by supporting each other. After all, “only blacks can relate to the experience that brought such a word into existence.”[16]        



[1] David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, Thomas A. Bailey, The American  Pageant (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2010), 832.   

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.,” 1963

[3] King, “Letter

[4] Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “Position Paper: The Basis of Black Power,” 1966

[5] SNCC, “Position Paper

[6] SNCC, “Position Paper

[7] SNCC, “Position Paper

[8] SNCC, “Position Paper

[9] John Jackson, “A Bleak Picture For Young Black Male Students,” NPR, 2010

[10] Jackson, “A Bleak

[11] Marc Morial, “National Urban League Charts Way Forward For Blacks,” NPR, 2011

[12] Morial, “National

[13] Juan Williams, “Poll: Education, Income Segregates Blacks,” NPR, 2007

[14] Lenore Philip, “Poll: Education, Income Segregates Blacks,” NPR, 2007

[15] SNCC, “Position Paper

[16] SNCC, “Position Paper

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