Submitted by: Stephen Dodds

Thanks to Brad Bothen in Minneapolis for the feedback and guidance during my time as one of your students.”

Historically, the quality of education received by African-Americans has been far below that offered whites and was an important issue to many early black writers and civil rights activists from Frederick Douglass, Booker T Washington, through Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and even the current president of the United States, Barack Obama. In his speech, A More Perfect Union, Obama offered some great lessons about how the time for change and action had come. While not directly referencing any of the above, there were similar themes and ideas expressed. Sometimes these writers agree, but occasionally there were major differences in their vision of education. Washington first heard of his educational opportunity, at the Hampton Institute, while working in a coal-mine. Incentive he gained admission to the college he worked hard as a janitor to pay for all he could, but even then needed the benevolence of others to keep him clothed.

One of the common threads we have discussed consistently in our class this semester is that of education, or rather the lack of it and the barriers African-Americans faced when trying to get it. Early in this course, we learned that not only were African-Americans largely uneducated, but that it was actually illegal for anyone to educate them, thanks to laws at that time (in 1740). Little is known about the early history of African-American education in America, but it is thought that whatever education they received in the 18th century was probably the result of occasional instruction by a benevolent slave masters or through the churches, though this did not occur until the early part of the 18th century. It was quite possible that this was only done in order to propagate the gospels of the church however, and not because of a perceived need to actually educate the black race.

Booker T Washington’s speech at the Atlanta Exposition, in which he urged his fellow black people to “Cast down your buckets, where you may…,” is perceived in different ways. To some it was merely acquiescence to the white majority by doing as they were expected or told to, but Washington thought that it was more a case of doing so in order that the black people could survive the situation they were in. In some ways, this could be seen as a non violent protest, along the lines of the non-violent protests that Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged. Washington felt it was a way to advance in that system so they could thrive in it whilst Malcolm X said to progress let alone prosper, you had to liberate yourself first then liberate others from the oppressive system we live in. Washington later founded the Tuskegee Institute as part of his education reform platform.

King said that education is a way to train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. As part of our education in this very school, we are taught the benefits of critical thinking. As Dr. King said “we are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda,” so we should remember his words from a speech he delivered on March 14, 1964, when he accepted the John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers: during which he said…
“The richest nation on Earth has never allocated enough resources to build sufficient schools, to compensate adequately its teachers, and to surround them with the prestige our work justifies. We squander funds on highways, on the frenetic pursuit of recreation, on the overabundance of overkill armament, but we pauperize education.”

There is a definite echoing of the crumbling schools remark in the More Perfect Union address, as we shall later read, but it goes back much further than that.

After Plessy v Ferguson, the segregation of schools became a major source of controversy, and eventually led to the ruling that such segregationist policies were in fact unconstitutional under law. According to the United States Supreme Court in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), segregation did not really help educate this nation’s children to the point that American children are no longer at the top of educational charts that track children’s educational attainment. To paraphrase what Obama said in his More Perfect Union address: it is time to talk about those crumbling schools that are stealing the future of our children and of how it is time to stand up and say how that just because kids do not look like us, doesn’t mean they do not learn like us. Student achievement gaps, he said, still need to be addressed. For example, the percentage of Blacks age 25 and older with a high school diploma or more was 72 percent in the 2000 census, compared to 85.5 percent for Whites. In addition, the percentage of Blacks with bachelor’s degrees or more was 14 percent, compared to 27 percent of Whites.

Du Bois and Washington are two of the earliest proponents of protest, the greatest difference between the two is in their view towards education and civil rights. Both Du Bois and Washington wanted African-Americans to have the same rights as white Americans, but Du Bois encouraged African-Americans to demand equal rights. Washington, on the other hand, often ignored discrimination. He believed that it was important for blacks to develop good relationships with whites. He was afraid that blacks who demanded equal rights would create ill will between themselves and white Americans. This in part was the reason he gave the ‘Cast your buckets speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895. In this address, his reference to castingdown your buckets, meant that by doing what you do best – be it agricultural or artisanal crafts like blacksmithing, for example, that you could survive in the situation you were in which would, in turn, lead to your being able to advance in that same system so you could thrive in it.  In contrast, Malcolm X appears to have believed that to progress you had to liberate yourself first then liberate others from the same oppressive system we live in. This liberation meant that you had to escape the oppression first, rather than endure it and gradually escape. Martin Luther King Jr. held a different view, in that he advocated non-violent protests, as it was not likely to lead to antagonism and mistrust whereas Malcolm X felt that it was necessary to have that discourse by any means necessary.

Education was seen as something as simple as literacy, which many blacks saw as a path to liberation, it was not about degrees and diplomas, merely the ability to read and be able to understand what was in the newspapers and books of the day. Literacy, Washington said was equated to liberty (Gates, Vol. I, pp 564-572). These schools set up just about anywhere, and everywhere, from farmers fields to actual schoolhouses. Indeed, in these words, taken from his ghost written autobiography, Up From Slavery, Washington expresses his thoughts and observations at first learning of the formal schooling now available.

They got up before day and studied in their cabins . . . late at night, drooping over their books, trying to master the secrets they contained. More than once, I have seen a fire in the woods at night with a dozen or more people of both sexes and of all ages sitting about with book in hands studying their lessons. Sometimes they would fasten their primers between the ploughshares, so that they could read as they ploughed.”

Contemporary poet and author, Reginald Dwayne Betts, recently visited the Normandalecampus as part of its annual writing festival.  In his address, he spoke of his own journey through the justice system, firstly as a convicted felon, then of how he took classes while in prison, and is now about to graduate from the prestigious Yale Law School. It does not seem that long ago,when such a situation that of a convicted felon becoming a success in his or her own rightwas unthinkable and we have come a long way since then, but the unanswered question that remains, is have we come far enough? A disproportionate number are still failing to graduate from high schools let alone colleges and universities.

Even today, with the same formal schooling available there are obvious inequalities as it seems as though there is a three times greater chance of black students being held back in ninth grade, according to Education Week. The quality of day care children receive has an effect on their later educational attainment, with many black children being placed in poor quality day care environments, which in turn leads to a proven under-representation in the gifted and talented programs within the school system in their later years (The National Journal). President Obama has maintained an initiative to bring higher quality child-care to more families. As part of his economic agenda (New York Times) in 2012, signed an executive order creating the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans in order to improve the educational achievement of African-Americans and make sure they are given the opportunity to complete high school, college, and embark on a productive career. By significantly improving the educational achievements of African-Americans, it will provide substantial benefits for our country by, among other things, increasing college completion rates, productivity, employment rates, and the number of African American teachers, the executive order declared. Whether it actually does remains to be seen but the process of progress towards this more perfect union goes on.


Betts, Dwayne Reginald. Bastards of the Reagan Era. New York, New York: Four Way

Books, 2015. Print. accessesed April 24, 2016.

Norton Anthology of African American Literature (3rd. Edition), Gates, H L Jr. and Smith, V. A.(Editors), W. W. Norton, New York. 2014. pp 564-572.

Norton Anthology of African American Literature (3rd. Edition), Gates, H L Jr. and Smith, V. A.(Editors), W. W. Norton, New York. 2014. p 1417

The Race Gap in High School Honors. April 24, 2016.

Economic Agenda.  accessed April 24, 2016. accessed April 24, 2016

Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. 1901.