Wednesday, August 17, 2011

No One Ever Said Democracy Would Be Fast Or Easy

Among the things in my life of which I'm most proud was that as a 4th grader in Columbia, South Carolina, I was part of the grand social and educational experiment called desegregation.

When I was in 2nd grade at the Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia, SC, there was one black boy in my class. He and I called one another “best friends." We played together at recess. We were the two fastest runners in our grade. He never saw my house and I never saw his. That was 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Two years later the courts ordered Columbia to desegregate its public schools. Most of our neighbors chose to send their kids to private schools, but my parents put me on the bus to Atlas Road Elementary, a run-down facility in the heart of an all-black neighborhood. One of my neighbors prepared me for my first day by telling me that she’d seen people “defecating in the roadside ditches” along Atlas Road. My parents, however, had taught me that we were all the same inside and I was thankfully young enough that I took them at their word.

I’m pretty sure my “three R’s” education was sub-par that year: to this day South Carolina’s public education system ranks near the bottom. But that wasn’t the point of desegregation. The point was to have black and white kids grow up together so that they could learn through experience what my parents had taught me: we’re all the same.

In fact it was economics more than race that marked the year for me. I was disappointed almost to tears when we exchanged Christmas gifts (each child brought one gift to be randomly distributed) and I wound up with a pair of socks that appeared used. And race certainly didn’t stop Shirley Jeffcoat from having a very embarrassing public crush on me. We were just kids together. We were all the same, except some of us were a lot poorer than others.

The experiment of desegregation and civil rights is working and I’m proud that my parents had the courage to make me a part of it. It’s no accident that just as the “desegregation generation” comes of age, we elect our first black president. I am aware of no other nation in the history of the world that has elected a member of an ethnic minority as its supreme leader.

This is what I wrote about my experience as part of my MLK Day post this year, which is just a version of an autobiographical story I've been proudly telling my entire life. I've long felt that we were over the hump in this fight. Oh, I know there are still plenty of bigots out there and that racism takes on many forms both overt and subtle, but I genuinely believed we had them on the run. And I still do, but it's evident that they are not done fighting back, this time in the disguise of "libertarian" crusaders and backed by billionaires.

This video by the Brave New Foundation has been making the rounds lately. I understand it's not journalism, but rather a short (11 minute) documentary with a political point-of-view, but the underlying story it tells of the organized, well-funded campaign to re-segregate public schools in North Carolina, and how parents, teachers, and students are fighting back is an important one.

This is not just happening in North Carolina. All across the country this battle is being fought school district by school district. And it does appear that the ultimate objective is the dismantling of public education altogether, as part of the libertarian ideological agenda of eliminating all social services in favor of "privatization."  I have no doubt that the increasing vilification of teachers and demonization of schools in places like Wisconsin are part of this campaign. Based on nothing but anecdotes, everyone from the Koch brothers and Bill Gates, to the Obama administration are pushing the idea that our public schools are failing, while the evidence says otherwise, and marching us toward the kind of inevitable re-segregation that will result from putting our children's education into the hands of profiteers.

It appears I was wrong. We are not over the hump and I'm not the only one who made that mistake. It seems that they may have caught us off guard. I, for one, was not anticipating the attacks on public education that we've seen these past couple years, but I've been inspired by how those who care most about children, their parents, teachers, and students themselves, have rallied to fight back. I hope we are entering an era of increased parent-teacher-student activism like that portrayed in this video. Indeed, it is our only hope.

Back in the 1980's I spent some time going door-to-door soliciting memberships for a consumer rights organization, and while our main job was fundraising, a lot of what we did was to educate people about how democracy works. As a still wet-behind-the-ears youth, barely out of my teens, I was surprised by how jaded the adult people were, how so many of them believed they'd fulfilled their patriotic duty simply by voting. One of the most common complaints was that "nothing ever happens" or "everything takes too long," followed by a shrug and a sigh.

One evening as we swapped stories over burgers and fries, one of my colleagues said, "You know what we should tell them? We should just say: 'No one ever said democracy would be fast or easy.'"

No one ever said democracy would be fast or easy.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the title of this post. This impact of privatization is one I haven't considered yet, but it's quite unsettling. Thanks for sharing!