Editor’s note: Fields was campaign manager for Avery Julien and Felisha George in the recent South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education Election.
“A leading voice in the chorus for social transition belongs to the white liberal, whether he speak through the government, the church, the voluntary welfare agencies or the civil rights movement. Over the last few years many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the white liberal who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality.” Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos of Community – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted human rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, made this observation against the backdrop of what he viewed as the abandonment of white liberals or “progressives” of the cause for equal rights. This was not the “feel good” Dr. King that many whites embrace safely in the shadow of his death; the “I Have a Dream” King of 1963 that many now reflect on with sentimentality. Though, not even the Dr. King of 1963 abandoned the truth of systemic racism in America. Perhaps it is why he did not enjoy widespread support, was highly unpopular in white and some black circles, and did not become a revered figure until he was lowered six feet into his grave.
What we witnessed in last week’s school board election is what Dr. King described in his final book, published after his assassination in 1968. Our communities subscribe to a quietude that belies the significant harm that has been done to African-American children in our public schools over the decades. We would rather have “quiet” and polite discussion rather than confront the ugliness that is apparent in the data on our district – if you so choose to acknowledge the truth. The status quo, no matter how horrible for black children, is acceptable so long as we can project an aura of progressivism and normalcy to the outside world. We can defend the indefensible because quite frankly – many don’t care that we operate a segregated public-school system. It is why the focus becomes a ‘newsletter’ and not the public record that it cites.
We have a school district that applies a ‘black tax’ on black households. We pay property taxes that are then used to discriminate against our children, and we are expected to accept this mistreatment. Our children are tracked, leveled and relegated to meaningless classes, and unfairly targeted for punishment, to the point that their post high school graduation trajectory is negatively prescribed early in life. Meanwhile, we have the phenomena of ‘black flight’ where many black families of means pull their children out of the district rather than subject them to this treatment. Wouldn’t it be interesting if black taxpayers refused to turn over their tax payments?
King, and other civil rights leaders, understood that the scourge of southern racism was easy to confront. What was more difficult was the subtle racism at play in the north. It is why Dr. King moved to Chicago in the late 1960s. It is why he called out the behavior of white liberals in his final book, and why he was willing to disturb the status quo. King knew the dangers presented by hooded Klansmen, but he warned against the banker, the businessman, the town council member, the businessman, the teacher – all who stood as obstacles to equality while projecting a face of empathy and concern. He had no interest in an unjust peace. No, he was committed to disturbing the peace, upsetting polite spaces, and accepting the demonization of his character to call America to account for its treatment of blacks and the poor. Today, in 2017, we cannot and will not preserve the peace out of fear of offending or causing uncomfortable moments. The progress we have achieved in America is because there were those among us willing to push this nation out of its comfort zone, and make it face its true self.
In 1962 James Jackson Kilpatrick, then editor of the Richmond (Va.) News Leader, authored his tome in support of racial segregation, “The Southern Case for School Segregation.” It was not the words of a fire breathing Klansman or member of the John Birch Society. It was the measured words of an educated journalist. Kilpatrick stated, “In the South, the acceptance of racial separation begins in the cradle. What rational man imagines this concept can be shattered overnight?” His “overnight” was two-hundred years of racism in America. Yet, he defended the status quo. It’s why one of Dr. King’s earlier books was titled “Why we Can’t Wait.” The status quo is indefensible and those that support it must be held to account for the harm it has done.
What is memorable in the history of the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans are the words written demonizing black children and black leaders, the pictures of angry whites hurling racial epitaphs at black children in the south and north, and the arguments, that are now silly in retrospect, against constructing a school system in which all children are treated equally. We may not be barring black children from the school house door in South Orange and Maplewood, but we are confining them to one elementary school and separating students by race through leveling in our high school. Same Jim Crow practices, just new and more nuanced techniques.
Elections come and go. What will not go away is the history, the data, the public record of Board of Education meetings, the positions of those who support the status quo, and the law that is clear that our district has trampled upon the rights of black children. It was the case on November 7 and remains so today. We intend to raise the truth in the appropriate forums to bring relief to Black students and their families.
Chairman, Black Parents Workshop
The opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Village Green or its editors. The Village Green does not represent or endorse the accuracy of statements made by the author.