Martin Luther King Jr.’s hope for equal education in Memphis still a dream, new book says

PHOTO: Bettmann
Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to a mass rally April 3, 1968 in Memphis, one day before his assassination.

In the 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, his dream of an education system providing equal economic opportunity to black children remains unfulfilled, according to a new book published by a Memphis advocacy group.

“An Education Dream,” edited by Mendell Grinter, the executive director of Campaign for School Equity, includes interviews with Memphis and national education leaders and documents major changes in the city’s school system. The book was published in conjunction with the National Civil Rights Museum and its yearlong commemoration of King’s legacy as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches April 4.

“The walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second-class status,” King said in a 1964 speech as he accepted an award from the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers union. “Therefore, as Negroes have struggled to be free, they have had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education.”

The book cites anemic test scores in the Memphis districts that educate mostly black children and graduation rates below the national average as evidence King’s vision has not been realized.

Grinter, who formed the organization in 2016 after breaking away from a national group advocating for charters and private school vouchers, said Memphis education leaders are still grappling with what Tennessee’s former education chief called “a Jim Crow public education system.”

“With this book, we hope to amplify Dr. King’s assertion that education is one of the cornerstones for economic advancement, celebrate the successes that have been made, and inspire the community to continue working to make Dr. King’s education dream a reality for all children,” Grinter said in a statement.

The book touches on significant milestones in Memphis education history such as the city’s attempt at school integration, Black Monday protests in which teachers and students left school to march to City Hall with a list of demands to improve black representation in the school system, and the more recent merger of the city and county school systems in 2013.

Today, many school leaders say they struggle to educate students from impoverished families, citing an overwhelming number of factors that impede a child’s education that is outside the control of teachers. The book acknowledges those challenges, but insists school systems can do more to deliver quality education to those students, most of whom are children of color.

“Pretending that social conditions independent of schooling have no impact on a student’s trajectory is wishful thinking; using those conditions to excuse schools is irresponsible,” said Daniel Kiel, the director of a documentary about the children who integrated Memphis schools.

John King, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education during the Obama administration, said America’s education system falls short of equality for all children, “but we’ve made progress.”

“I think that’s the American narrative,” he said in his interview. “I carry with me a tremendous sense of urgency about trying to get us closer to that vision of equality of opportunity faster.”

Those quoted in the book include:

  • Chris Caldwell, school board member for Shelby County Schools
  • Earle Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis
  • Terri Freeman, president of National Civil Rights Museum
  • Howard Fuller, professor of education at Marquette University and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning
  • Kevin Huffman, former Tennessee education commissioner
  • Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform
  • Daniel Kiel, associate professor at the University of Memphis and director of “The Memphis 13” documentary
  • John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education and president and CEO of The Education Trust
  • Cardell Orrin, executive director, Stand for Children Memphis
  • Tami Sawyer, director of diversity and cultural competence at Teach For America Memphis
  • Roblin Webb, executive director of Freedom Preparatory Academy
  • Bobby White, founder and CEO, Frayser Community Schools

Campaign for School Equity plans to host two events to discuss the book. The first will be 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, at the National Civil Rights Museum.

The second will be 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 16, in New York City in partnership with Democrats for Education Reform, the Walton Family Foundation, The 74, and StudentsFirst New York. (The Walton foundation supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

This story has been updated to note that the Walton Family Foundation supports Chalkbeat as well as the New York City event promoting this book.

after parkland

‘We’re not kidding about this,’ says one teen leader of Memphis march on gun violence

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in Indianapolis participate in the National School Walkout on March 14. This Saturday, students in the Memphis area will join a related March for Our Lives.

Memphis students were on spring break when this month’s national school walkout against gun violence happened, but 13-year-old Simran Bains is not going to miss her chance to publicly speak her mind.

PHOTO: Simran Bains
Eighth-grader Simran Bains is a student leader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville.

An eighth-grader at Schilling Farms Middle School in Collierville, which is on the outskirts of Memphis, Simran is one of more than a dozen teenagers planning this Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Memphis.

She believes the student drive to protest gun violence following last month’s shooting of 17 people in Parkland, Florida, will not end anytime soon. Saturday’s march is part of a national movement organized by Parkland students to keep the conversation going about gun violence.

“I think this moment is different,” Simran said. “For every school shooting I can remember, it’s the same cycle. People are sad and shocked, but nothing ever changes.”

Students and other supporters will walk to the National Civil Rights Museum from Clayborn Temple, the historic assembling area for civil rights marches of the 1960s.

We spoke with Simran about what this march means to her and what she hopes Memphis learns from it. (This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

Why are you participating in Saturday’s march?

For me, I’ve always been a little louder than my peers. I’ve always been one to go on a tangent or two. When I heard about the march from a friend, it really stood out to me because it’s being organized by people my age. I have never seen people this young doing stuff like this. It was inspiring. There’s this perception in society that there’s a gun problem in America and that’s how the world will always be. But here, I’m seeing young people, who are the future of America, changing the world, and I wanted to be a part of that.

What message do you hope to send?

I hope people hear that even though we’re young, we’re not kidding about this, and we won’t back down. I want people in Shelby County to care more about this issue and listen to us. I hope people recognize that even if they have a right to protection, no one should have to fear for their life while receiving a public education. This is a serious issue. If we don’t do something, it only gets worse from here.

But I also hope we can broaden the conversation beyond school shootings. We have one of the highest gun homicide rates in the world, one of the highest suicide-by-gun rates in the world. We’re talking about people killing themselves, not just people killing people. Suicide and homicide aren’t often brought into this conversation. I hope that changes in Memphis.

I also want the march to remind us that we can’t become desensitized to gun violence. Whenever we read that someone was shot, we don’t always think how somebody just lost one of their own. That person will have to go home to empty bedrooms.

What specifically would you like to see happen in Tennessee?

I’m personally not one to advocate for the total removal of guns. I think that’s sometimes an assumption of people who are against protests like March for Our Lives. They assume we want to take all guns away. That’s not necessarily true. But I want a written exam to purchase a gun, like in Japan. I also want a longer wait time when you purchase a gun. I don’t think you should be able to walk into a gun shop and walk out the same day with a weapon. School shootings, or gun violence in general, can often be a spur-of-the-moment decision. What if the person had to wait a few days, weeks or months before they actually got that gun? Would they still feel the same way they did when they first went to buy the gun?

Have you or your family or your friends ever been personally touched by gun violence?

My family has never been a gun family. My parents are immigrants from India, and it’s just never been a thing for us. Going to school where I do, there’s a lot of political viewpoints. Some people are really pro owning guns, some are really against. And it’s an interesting place to talk about this. But also, I’ve gotten to know people from different backgrounds. I know people in Memphis and areas surrounding it who have lost someone to guns. I’ve known people who have lost loved ones to guns in homicides or gang violence.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”