‘Black Lives Matter at School’ — a new book on anti-racist work in education

By Brian Jones

The Black Lives Matter at School movement is a new phase of a long struggle to transform the conditions of teaching and learning for Black students in this country. Black parents, teachers, and students have not just been the object of historic educational battles (either wrongfully denied opportunities or grateful recipients of them) but have been leading the fight. By entering this struggle, you are joining a stream of historic activism and advocacy, led by Black people, for justice in schooling. All the moralizing about whether Black people “value” education falls apart in the face of their unwavering, hundreds-years-long effort to get it. No other people in this land have fought so hard for so long for access to and justice in schooling.

Each of the week of action’s four demands (end zero tolerance, mandate Black history and ethnic studies, hire more Black teachers, and fund counselors, not cops) has echoes, precedents, and activist ancestors to call upon. While the heroes and sheroes of this long struggle are mostly unknown to history, some, like Carter G. Woodson and Mary McLeod Bethune, are better remembered. The struggles of other groups, including Indigenous people, people from Latin America, and people from Asia, are related to and connected to the history of Black people’s struggles for education, but they are not the focus of this chapter. What follows is an attempt to provide a quick overview of a story that could easily fill books, bookshelves, and libraries. Its purpose is to give you a sense of how the present movement fits into past patterns and inspire you to read on, to keep pushing and learning more.

Mandate Black history and ethnic studies

In the late twentieth century, Black college students rose up all over the United States, demanding the formation of Black studies and ethnic studies departments on their campuses. From historically Black colleges like Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to Ivy League institutions like Brown University, students in the 1960s and ’70s protested, sat in, occupied buildings, and more, with a wide range of demands that almost always included the teaching of Black history and the mandating of Black studies in some form. When a majority of the students at San Francisco State College went on strike in 1968, they won the formation of the nation’s first Black studies department as part of a new School of Ethnic Studies.

Public schools were a major battleground in the US civil rights movement, but Black parents and activists often had to create their own schools from scratch. Some, like Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools, were created by the movement, for the movement. In hundreds of Citizenship Schools spread across the US South, students of all ages could acquire the rudiments of literacy, increase their knowledge of political processes, and gain exposure to highlights from Black history.

Another type of self-organized Black schools were the Freedom Schools, created by civil rights activists to supplement inadequately funded and often degrading schooling provided by the state, and to raise political consciousness. The first Freedom School was organized in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, and the idea spread nationwide (and continues today).

Building on the energy of the movements of the 1960s, Black parents, educators, and activists developed regional and national networks of independent Black schools in the 1970s that put Black studies at the core of their mission. Foremost among these was the popular and successful independent school created in Oakland by the Black Panther Party, where reclaiming Black history also meant learning African history. “We knew the map of Africa,” one former student recalled, “just as well as we knew the United States.”

But many decades before these uprisings, Black educators and activists collected and curated books and other materials related to Black history and disseminated Black history curricula to schoolteachers nationwide. In Harlem, Black working-class intellectuals like Arturo Schomburg and Hubert Harrison built impressive personal Black history libraries and lectured widely in the 1920s and ’30s. Black scholar and educator Carter G. Woodson started the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Chicago in 1915 and launched a Negro History Week initiative in 1926.

Like the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, Negro History Week was a do-it-yourself, grassroots effort. Woodson produced the Negro History Bulletin, a periodical that aimed to provide accessible stories and ideas about Black history for teachers to use in their classrooms. As an annual event in February, Negro History Week spread to a few cities in its first years but did not become codified as Black History Month until the 1970s. One bulletin in 1938 emphasized that the point of studying Black history is not to elevate Black people above any other people but to serve as a corrective to racist history. “The fact is…that one race has not accomplished any more good than any other race,” an article titled “History Is Truth” explained, “for it would be contrary to the laws of nature to have one race inferior to the other. But if you leave it to the one to set forth his special virtues while disparaging those of others, it will not require many generations before all credit for human achievements will be ascribed to one particular stock. Such is the history taught the youth today.”

The Negro History Bulletin was just one part of the broader landscape of efforts by social justice–minded Black (mostly female) educators nationwide to raise Black pride and consciousness inside of the classroom and beyond. Negro History Week was an occasion for self-organized community marches, Black history lectures, musical concerts, and singing the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

We can trace the impulse to demand instruction in Black history even earlier. In the late nineteenth century, after the abolition of slavery, Black people seized every opportunity to acquire literacy and to create for themselves and their children a new narrative about their place in the nation and the world.10 Black people were so determined that they actually became more literate than white people in the US South during this period. Young and old alike grabbed any spelling book they could get hold of and learned side by side. While some of these booklets produced by white missionary societies were condescending in tone, literate free Black people in northern states also produced materials to send south.

These resources narrated Black history as a story of heroic rebellion, from Toussaint L’Ouverture (leader of the Haitian Revolution) to Nat Turner (leader of a revolt in Virginia in 1831). One such journal, the Freedman’s Torchlight, was the first curriculum published by Black people for Black students. It aimed to teach the alphabet, phonemes, and rudiments of grammar and literacy, along with passages for the newly literate to read aloud. The first issue from 1866 promised that “[h]istory will tell you about the different nations, and great cities that ever have been. It will tell you who first came to this country, and all about the Colored people and every people. It is delightful to read history. As soon as you can read all in this little paper, called The Torchlight, you will be able to read history.”

End zero tolerance and fund counselors, not cops

Sending their children to school for the first time in the aftermath of abolition, some of the freed people and, to their credit, some of their new teachers were opposed to corporal punishment for students because it was too reminiscent of the violence of slavery. There doesn’t seem to be evidence of widespread corporal punishment in the late nineteenth-century schools that Black students attended or widespread opposition to it where it took place. The demand to stop over-punishing Black students may date back to the Great Migration in the early twentieth century, when millions of Black people fled Jim Crow terrorism in the South and relocated in northern and western states during the twentieth century. Fleeing rural terrorism and poverty for new political and economic opportunities, they found themselves in an urban landscape defined by racism and segregation. Northern white teachers and administrators almost universally viewed Black students as inherently (or, at best, culturally) inferior.16 Some organizations of radical white teachers were important exceptions to this pattern. In 1936, a fourteen-year-old Black student, Robert Shelton, was involved in a disturbance in the hallway of his sister’s Harlem elementary school, PS5. He was brought to Gustav Schoenchen, the white principal, who beat him. Two doctors determined that Shelton had contusions on his arms, traumatic injuries to the muscles in his ribs, and injuries on his scalp.

Black parents immediately organized to demand Schoenchen’s removal as principal. Their organization, the Committee for Better Schools in Harlem, received assistance from educator and activist Ella Baker, as well as from an organized group of mostly white teachers. New York City’s teachers during this period had two competing trade unions: the Teachers Guild and the Teachers Union. The Teachers Union was led by members of the Communist Party, and so they were deeply committed to antiracism. They challenged racism in the city’s curriculum and fought for the inclusion of Black history lessons, protested segregation and overcrowding in schools that served mostly Black and Brown students, and joined the Harlem parents on picket lines to demand Schoenchen’s removal from PS 5. Unfortunately, the Teachers Union was red-baited out of existence during the McCarthy anti-communist purges, when many radical teachers were fired.18 The Teachers Guild, which supported these purges, went on to organize all of New York City’s teachers and is known today as the United Federation of Teachers. Tragically, the UFT, like most teachers unions in cities with large populations of Black and Brown students, has a history of supporting provisions that strengthen the ability of teachers to remove “disruptive” children from the classroom.

The term “zero tolerance” comes from the US Customs Service’s anti drug program in the 1980s, but police began patrolling the hallways of schools for Black and Latinx students as early as the 1940s. Over the next several decades, municipal leaders in urban school districts increasingly turned to police to control young Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As they moved through their school day, by 1972 such students in at least forty states did so under the watch of police.

The presence of uniformed police officers in public schools emerged as a national policy priority in the 1990s after a wave of suburban school shootings. Ironically, although these shootings most often involved white students, it was predominantly schools serving Black and Brown students that saw police departments move in and take over the functions of school safety agents. In 1998, the New York City Police Department took over school safety in the city’s public education system (the nation’s largest), starting with 1,500 officers.

By 2008, the number had jumped to more than 5,000. Meanwhile New York City’s 1.1 million public school students only had 3,000 guidance counselors. Police in schools quickly became normalized in many large urban school districts, but student activists have been at the forefront of calling this priority into question.

Hire more Black teachers

In the twenty-first century, the demand to hire more Black teachers has emerged from two historic waves of mass firing of Black teachers. The first large-scale attack on Black teachers occurred after the famous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Ironically, this great victory for Black educators and activists was experienced as a calamity for many Black communities. Black teachers and administrators prepared for desegregation by drawing up plans for the best way to approach the transition. All over the United States, Black educators worked out careful plans to have some Black administrators and teachers change schools along with Black students, so that the educators could help their white colleagues get to know the new students. Tragically, white politicians and school leaders did not think that desegregation should mean shared power with Black educators or parents. Rather, they drew up desegregation plans that almost always required Black students to travel to attend previously all-white schools, and never the reverse. White administrators were reluctant to hire Black teachers, and so one of the perverse results of the Brown decision was mass closure of previously all-Black schools and mass unemployment for Black educators. Between 1954 and 1965, approximately 50 percent of black teachers and 90 percent of Black principals lost their jobs. Speaking to the all-Black Georgia Teachers and Education Association in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Integration doesn’t mean the liquidation of everything started and developed by Negroes.” Rather, he continued, real integration meant shared power. “And I am not one that will integrate myself out of power.”

The second wave of destroying Black teaching jobs has taken place as a result of the recent neoliberal push for the privatization of public schools. Once again, apparent victories for Black parents and students—in this case the bipartisan consensus in support of charter schools, Common Core standards, and Common Core–aligned standardized testing, as well as the weakening of teacher unions—amounted to a loss for Black teachers. The double irony is that unions have been a principal lever of social mobility for Black people, and the test-and-punish regime that has come to dominate the contemporary approach to public education has primarily targeted schools where Black teachers work, leading to school closures and the pushing of large numbers of Black teachers out of the profession.

Black teachers are only about 7 percent of the nation’s teaching force but tend to be concentrated in areas with large populations of Black students. In New York City, for example, 20 percent of public school teachers are Black. Chicago and New Orleans are two of the most extreme examples; from 1995 onward, the percentage of Black teachers in Chicago has dropped from 45 percent to 25 percent.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, 73 percent of its teachers were Black. After the storm, which city leaders used as an excuse to close public schools and bring in charter schools staffed with Teach for America members, only 49 percent of the teachers were Black.

What both historic waves of attacks on Black teachers have in common is the attempt to carry out programs of racial justice for people, instead of with them. Black teachers, parents, and administrators greeted the Brown decision with a mixture of enthusiasm and dread. But in many cities around the country, Black educators drew up plans for the integration of schools. These plans were ignored.

Likewise, the opening of gleaming new hedge fund–backed charter school facilities in places like Harlem was greeted with an initial wave of enthusiasm. But there, too, it eventually became clear to parents and students that grinding through successive waves of brand-new teachers semester after semester provided no miracles, and many students moved from charter schools back to public schools, where they could find a stable community of educators (and a higher percentage of Black educators) to care for and instruct them.

In four hundred years on this land, Black people have waged an uninterrupted battle for education. The equally persistent and ongoing resistance to their demands for reform should give us all pause. To get some small measure of access, they have had to draw up petitions and make demands of existing institutions. At the same time, they have developed and built their own resources and institutions, creating their own curricular materials and even their own schools.

The Black Lives Matter at School movement shares these aims. It calls upon you, the reader of this chapter, to join in demanding more from our schools and applying pressure to school and political officials. But it is a grassroots initiative created, conceived, and coordinated by parents, teachers, and students nationwide—not by officials. Not unlike the early development of Negro History Week, the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action is, at heart, a DIY movement, inviting you to take action now, teach Black history now, affirm Black students now, regardless of whether the demands are met. The Black Lives Matter movement (initiated by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida) has sparked a wide range of initiatives and organizations. Because schools are so central to modern life—as community centers, as workplaces, and as crucial sites of making and remaking ideas—it is not surprising that the Black Lives Matter movement has found a durable form of organization in the form of the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. Our public schools touch nearly every person in one way or another, and as the week of action spreads from school to school, we are putting down roots for one of the most important new social movements of our time.

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