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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.

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