On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision on Brown v. the Board of Education, a case which established that creating separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional.
That verdict galvanized a people. In the mid-20th century, the battle for equal rights under the law became an idea that unified us as never before. Blacks had a strong sense of destiny. It was a time fraught with challenge, and at times peril, but we did not back down.
We marched in the streets, we stood vigil over lunch counters and school house steps, and we fought for an unlikely dream that within the span of a decade became a reality with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the 50’s and 60’s, it was clear what we were fighting for; and each individual stood to benefit from the movement.
Today the fight for education equality should be no less real, no less relevant. Nineteenth century American education reformer, Horace Mann, once said that ‘education…is the great equalizer’. If that’s so, then we’ve lost ground as we’ve moved into the 21st century. Education should be our ‘great equalizer’ and yet many seem to be unaware that our children are struggling to even graduate from high school.
In 2011, the Annie E. Casey Foundation produced Double Jeopardy, a report on how third-grade reading skills and poverty affect high school graduation. The report found that Black children who live in poverty and in communities with poorly performing schools are twice as likely not to graduate from high school as white children with similar reading proficiency challenges. Blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population yet Black children represent 30% of those who do not graduate from high school in this country.
In some ways, this leaves us almost worse off than in the segregated education system of the 1950’s. While African Americans may no longer be forced to live in inner-city neighborhoods by segregation, an inordinate number of African-American children live in the grinding cycle of poverty. Fortunately, many of our elders remain in these communities, and like many of them did during the first major civil rights battle, they continue their fight–this time for our children.
They are our community caretakers, keeping body and soul together by volunteering in churches, community centers, libraries and schools. Their sense of civic duty has been unwavering, showing the same level of commitment and sacrifice that they did during the fight for civil rights.
As the CEO and VP for AARP Experience Corps, I see this first hand. Nearly 60% of the in-classroom reading tutors who volunteer for us are African American, with an average age of 70. They are steadfast in their desire to share the gift of reading with generations to come. But they can’t do it alone. Our schools need more funding, more innovative programing, more hope and more dreams. It’s only through our collective voices, working together, that this 21st century civil rights challenge will be answered.
Can we count on you? Learn more about Experience Corps, and the 20 communities we serve. Visit www.aarp.org/experiencecorps.
Lester Strong is the Vice President and Chief Executive of AARP Experience Corps, a program which utilizes the time and talents of adults age 50-plus as reading tutors and mentors for children in Kindergarten through third grade. AARP Experience Corps serves 22,000 students in 20 cities across the United States. The program is recognized as the one of the most effective in-school reading interventions in the country.