This month I am writing from the road as I travel the United States’ South and Midwest and various cities and townships of Ontario, Canada touring with Inland Empire educators and parents on the Black Voice Foundation’s Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad Study Tour. Please join me this summer on the road…
On Saturday we visited the former site of the Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie, Ontario Canada, the location of the first meeting of the Niagara Movement led by scholar and civil rights leader WEB DuBois. These 29 men met at the quiet out of the way location across from Buffalo with the intention of developing a nationwide activist group whose primary mission “called for equal treatment for all American citizens.” That treatment included access to equal economic opportunities, not only free, but compulsory education for all, and equal justice and punishment under the law.
The principles of that meeting urged others to return to the faith of “our fathers” – founding fathers – and appealed for everyone to be considered equal and free. Several years later, members of the group went on to form the NAACP, the leading civil rights organization of the 20th century.
The Niagara Movement group met July 11, 1905, exactly one hundred and ten years to the day of our visit.
As I stood looking across the expansive Lake Erie at the effulgent Downtown Buffalo skyline, I thought about the committed and dedicated educators who joined us on the trip and how access to quality education has emerged as one of the prominent civil rights issues of our time.
Last year the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released comprehensive civil rights data from all 97,000 of the nation’s public schools. It was the first time since 2000 that the Department compiled such comprehensive information. “It is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in announcing the report’s findings, “This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain.” Students of color are still suspended more often than whites, are significantly more likely to have teachers with less experience, and more likely to attend schools that offer fewer advanced courses.
The Niagara Movement sought to bring about a “mighty current of change” in addressing systemic inequalities and discrimination. While we have made great gains since then, we clearly have much more to improve, including reforming our educational system nationwide. In addressing inequalities in education 110 years ago at that founding meeting, WEB DuBois said, “Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.” Let us work to make sure ignorance doesn’t win.