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The Struggle for a Quality Education Defines Black History Month

Baltimore's Leith Walk Elementary School.
Baltimore's Leith Walk Elementary School.

During Black History month, we should all recognize that the endless quest for a quality and widely available education represents the essence of the struggles and achievements of Black people in America.  The achievement of laws surrounding equal education becomes our contribution to all Americans since those laws benefit all citizens. 

Our national history is personified by a relentless series of almost impossible education journeys by great Black men and women defying the racial odds stacked against them.  Black History Month represents a time to celebrate that group: a long line of deep-thinking original educators and scholars traversing a checkered, pot-holed tundra of historical misdeeds and mistreatment. 

Throughout Black History Month, we’ve picked up on those countless stories – some captured in pop culture and widely read history books, others captured in timeless tales passed down from generation to generation. 

Black people, since slavery, have pushed stubbornly (and magnificently) ahead to attain that dream of a quality education above all else, it seems.  “Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better,” opined Black History Month founder Carter G. Woodson. There is, perhaps, no other demographic throughout history that’s recognized the benefits of academic enrichment than African Americans. That tenacity and drive for education has driven black progress for centuries and shaped the trajectory of every Black History Moment. 

Interestingly enough, educational choice has been the cornerstone of the African American experience if one considers key figures, periods, institutions and events throughout our history.  In each instance, we find choice being exercised in a bid to radically alter one’s circumstance as the genesis of great, essential changes in American education. We are captivated by grueling, yet inspirational stories of escaped slaves turned legendary abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who taught himself to read and write.  “Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher,” Douglass writes in his Narrative “I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”  

Douglass spiritual protégé Booker T. Washington, a highly successful and pioneering African American educator, faced similar circumstances: born a slave, freed and, at the young age of nine teaching himself to read and write as a primary and practical vehicle of empowerment.  “What our people most needed was to get a foundation in education, industry, and property,” Washington observes, as he built the massive Tuskegee Institute, established at that time for the sole purpose of providing an applicable, quality education for the African American masses.  

It is not just these famous leaders who have sought and fought for educational choice that has shaped our lives.   Who among all black people does not have a story of family or neighbors where the generation before us worked, protested, and even died to see their children get a better education?  How many professional athletes, for example, complete school or go back to school because their mother begged them to complete their education?  

I am personally thankful to Mr. Washington for establishing the Tuskegee Institute where both my parents went to college because they passed along the virtue of gaining the best education I could.   To this day, that guides my quest to provide my children and grandchild the best educational opportunities they can experience.   They will become better citizens with a fuller understanding of their contributions to society if fully exposed to a quality education. If it’s not the courage of Douglass and Washington and every day parents and grandparents, it’s the freedom and literacy of millions of freed slaves during Reconstruction or the indispensable contributions of talented black Harlem Renaissance authors to the evolution of American literature.   “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today,” was activist Malcolm X. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically,” contemporary and legendary father of the modern civil rights movement Martin Luther King, Jr. concurred. “Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.”

Hence, one key basis for this reflective month is the exercise of educational choice (along with the right to vote and a few other key inalienable rights). People in struggle pushed for educational choice in a bid to improve life for themselves and future generations to follow. Those choices have been moments that have made American education better (if not perfect). The landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision dramatically altered the course of educational equality, as did the bravery of black students desegregating schools from Little Rock, Arkansas to the University of Mississippi.  

This struggle for educational equality continues today.  A current wave of African American leaders, such as former President Barack Obama, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Mayor Michael Hancock (D-Denver), former Colorado Senate President Peter Groff, Assistant House Democratic Leader Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and former Georgia State Rep. Alisha Morgan – to name several - have made high quality K-12 education a centerpiece of their work and in a response to the demands of their constituents. Black families, like their ancestors before them, resoundingly want the option to choose the best type of education for their children. In that choice lies progress, and in that progress lies the foundation for more generations of Black History yet to be realized, but closer with every new child educated. 

NATE DAVIS is Executive Chairman of K12 Inc., a technology-based education company and leading provider of online learning programs to schools across the U.S. He is also a regular contributor in The Hill.