Can you see them? The bright, colorful flowers that have burst forth from seeds planted over 50 years ago? They are flowers on the stalk of School integration that have finally bloomed bold enough for all to behold. I am speaking of the recent appointees to Barack Obama’s cabinet—there is a rainbow of multiple ethnic hues: white, yellow, red, brown, and yes, black! Hooray for Obama! Never before has there been a president with the bodacious courage that Obama is displaying by picking the “best and brightest” from an array of races that truly reflect the face of contemporary America. It is heartening to observe that so many of the nation’s top positions will be held by black Americans—positions that require high intellectual capacity and personal dynamism, as well as grounded social acumen and moral turpitude. On the list are men and women whose credentials are impeccable—graduates of the nation’s most highly-respected colleges and universities: Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, Stanford, Wellesley, and Berkeley– and possessing proven records of leadership in many of the most prestigious organizations in our society. Never before has this or any other country seen such men and women march onto the most powerful of world stages to take their place in history before the entire world. Truly, Change has come.
As I watch these epic events unfold, I can’t help but reflect on the long, arduous, and often frustrating process that I believe has made this day possible. It was as long ago as 1954 that the highest court of the land declared school segregation unconstitutional and harmful, and ordered the immediate and deliberate dismantling of state mandates that required such separation of ethnically different students; specifically, Negro and White ones. This was the bell that tolled the note of imminent change in our country that led to this day. Though it would take many years to take effective hold, the seeds of change were planted with that momentous decision—the harvest of which we are now witnessing.
Few people born in the late ‘50s, ‘60s and beyond can truly realize how meaningful that Supreme Court decision has been in the development of our national society from then to now. They tend to take for granted the free flow of blacks and whites that is enter-meshed in all aspects of our daily experience. But most of us blacks—born before the ‘50s, can hardly spend a single day without thinking about how far things have come since then. It takes very little to yank us back, psychologically, to a day when things were different: a song heard on the radio, a spiritual sung in church, an antiquated verbal expression or admonition by an elder that harkens back to a period when words were both shields and weapons—reminders of where our “place” was. Memories can be insidious.
Back then, particularly if you were born in the South, your educational aspirations were limited to the few black colleges that darted the region: Howard, Hampton, Tuskegee, Huston-Tillotson, Wylie, Bishop, Prairie View, Louisiana and Texas Southern, Xavier, Spelman, Meharry and the like. Note that there are no appointees on Obama’s team who are graduates of those institutions. In fact, although still excellent schools, they are colleges and universities that are teetering on the verge of extinction—barely able to keep their doors open in a weak financial climate, as well as intrepid competition from previously all-white universities. They are mainly victims of integration, in spite of opening their enrollment to all races. Integration was a tide that lifted scores of people—students and teachers alike—to new levels; mostly high ones.
As one who rode the tide of school integration in 1951 when the Tucson Arizona Board of Trustees elected to integrate schools, I can vouch for the positive impact that education in a mixed school setting had on me. After some initial adjustments that were made necessary by an internal sense of inferiority imposed by years of Jim Crow laws in the town where I grew up, I was able to shed the temerity that at first engulfed my spirit, and blocked expression of my true intellect and abilities. The path to success became more expansive and brighter with each successive year of competing with all types of students–winning and losing on a level playing field–and being taught by a diverse cadre of quality professionals. Backgrounds blended together to give me broader perspectives on a variety of previously unexplored subjects. I made new friends, some of them lifelong, from other cultures and gained an appreciation for the sameness of mankind in the midst of differences. The sharing of intellectual, social, and moral insights has added infinitely to my personal growth and development.
There is no way to measure how much such a fundamental change as school integration in the American experience will ultimately have on our nation’s future. We will want to study how they were made; perhaps to replicate components of their success in future minority leaders or perhaps just to congratulate ourselves for persisting, insisting on needed change in this one critical dimension—education.
One thing is certain: these capable leaders did not get here in a system that measured their intelligence and skills on endless batteries of objective tests. These bright new leaders are not the by-products of endless, time-consuming tests. They are, it seems more likely, by-products of quality, rigorous, curriculum and instruction–the mother’s milk of quality education. I hope that by their example, school leaders will take note of the futility of “dumbing down” curricula to satisfy insatiable demands for higher test scores. In a world where there are only twenty-four hours in a day, schools should be required to expose students to ideas that stretch them, and to teaching that maximizes their talents and skills.
Time is not on our side. Statistics scream the downward slide in performance of America’s students in academic areas in spite of an ever-increasing emphasis on testing and test scores. Clearly, It is not more testing that is needed. Any good cattle rancher will tell you that more scales will not produce prime and premium-rated beef for the market. Indeed, it is feed that does the trick, not constant weighing. Likewise, it is quality curricula and great teaching that will reverse the current downward trend in schooling. If we want the “best and the brightest” to continue to dwell among us, then I posit that we’d better do a better job of tending our educational garden.
Segregation was bad– really bad—but something worse is now threatening our core commodity—human capital. Students of all races are falling behind, but blacks and Hispanics more so than others. This must concern us if we are to continue the positive thrust of the Obama administration. New, promising “seeds” are needed to receive the torch from this generation of leaders. It is well known that seeds planted in shallow soil will wither and blow away, but those planted in the deep, fertile soil, and fertilized often will grow up as tall, strong plants and bear good harvest. It’s just that simple.
We must ask and answer the question: “How does our garden grow?” If we’re not happy with the answer, it might be time to get behind educational change efforts that will put our country back on track to raise up a new generation of well-educated, informed and innovative leaders. Going forward, we will need such leadership lest we, the citizens of a once-great society, get left behind. More, not fewer, black and Hispanic students must step onto the world stage prepared to lead. How prepared they will be is the challenge for today’s stakeholders.