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Volume 17, Number 3
May/June 2001

Quality Education Is a Civil Rights Issue

If African Americans are going to make significant progress in education reform, they need to organize


The dominant proposals for school reform aimed at addressing the plight of poor black children these days—vouchers, busing, magnet schools—amount to a national program of moving students rather than fixing schools. The current national discussion on school "reform" revolves around designing education as a sorting machine rather than using education as an opportunity structure. If African Americans are going to make significant progress in education reform, we need to see education and literacy as a civil rights issue, and we need to organize.

Almost 40 years ago, early in the spring of 1962, seven of us in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were arrested for helping escort black people in Greenwood, Mississippi—most of them marginally literate—to the voter registration office. Later, on the stand as a witness in federal district court, I made an appeal on behalf of black Americans living in the Mississippi Delta for the right of one person, one vote. I argued that fairness meant that the United States could not turn its back on the flagrant neglect of an entire citizenry’s literacy education and then demand that literacy be a necessary condition for their citizenship—in this case, their right to vote. We won that argument. All black people, in theory, now have the right to vote in this country, although, as the last presidential election reminded us, in practice we are not always granted access to that right.

Black people have also not yet won our right to literacy education in functional public school systems across the country. My current work—an effort I have been engaged in for the past 20 years as founder of the Algebra Project—links the ongoing struggle of minority people for education and citizenship to the issue of math literacy. We think that in an era where the "knowledge worker" is replacing the industrial worker, illiteracy in math must now be considered as unacceptable as illiteracy in reading and writing.

The Algebra Project is retooling the organizing tradition of the civil rights movement to advance an American tradition that argues for education as the fundamental structure for opportunity and meaningful citizenship. No one understood this better than freed slaves during and immediately after the Civil War. The first great mass movement for state-funded public education in the South came from African Americans, wrote W.E.B. Dubois in Black Reconstruction: "Public education for all at public expense, was, in the South, a Negro idea."

Their efforts were beaten down and sabotaged after the election of 1876 when, like our current situation, the United States suffered a tainted presidency and, as now, citizenship rights of black people were at issue. Sharecropping followed the collapse of Reconstruction. With this system came presumptions of white blamelessness and of black intellectual inferiority. "The Negro should be taught to work with his hands," wrote one writer in the late 19th century. Real schooling, he added, "tends to unbalance [the Negro] mentally." Sharecropping was still in place when, at the 1964 Democatic Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer, the resonant voice of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, asked the country with her heart, soul, and her two-months-a-year sharecropper schooling, "Is this America?"

There had also arisen in the midst of the Depression the idea of an "aristocracy of the intellect." By the end of World War II, SAT tests and a national selection process that determined who was worthy of the best schools was set in place. This skewed the idea of public education as an opportunity structure—a place where everyone in the democracy was given an equal opportunity to advance—toward the idea of public education as a means of selecting a national elite.

And though we are concerned with math—algebra in particular—the Algebra Project’s core idea is that education in public schools should be an opportunity structure for every student. This is the more important discussion about educational needs and "school reform" that needs to begin now. In our vision, public education means quality public education for all students. Such an education remains an unfulfilled promise in this country. We haven’t put the money, the research, or the effort into figuring out what a quality education should be and what students could be expected to learn. As was true of the southern civil rights movement, where sharecroppers, maids, day workers, and others who were expected to be silent found their voice, meaningful school reform will require the voices of students and communities demanding the quality education that too many assume they can’t handle and don’t want.

Robert P. Moses, a longtime educator and civil rights advocate, is founder of the Algebra Project, a national math literacy program serving more than 40,000 children nationwide. Charles E. Cobb, Jr., is senior writer for, a Washington, DC–based online news and information agency. They co-authored
Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights, published in March 2001 by Beacon Press.

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