“Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights. It is the means to help our children and our people rediscover their identity and thereby increase their self-respect. Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.”
By Bankole Thompson
My late godfather and mentor George Haley, the brother of Roots author Alex Haley, repeatedly shared with me the significance of the Brown v. Board of Education landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated schools. Haley, who saw education as a liberating tool for black children like him who grew up under Jim Crow and were the victims of racist laws at the time, graduated from the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville in 1952, two years before the Brown decision was handed down. He was one of six black students who desegregated the law school and were known as the Six Pioneers.
He was the second African American to graduate, and because of the stench of Jim Crow during that period, he was forced to take some of his law classes in the basement of the building for his own safety. His brother Alex would document the racial humiliation and taunts that George, who took some classes earlier with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at Morehouse College, for his undergraduate studies, suffered in a Reader’s Digest article titled, “The Man Who Wouldn’t Quit.” George graduated from Morehouse in 1949. King graduated in 1948.
After law school George Haley, who earlier joined the military, headed to Kansas City, Kansas to work for the law firm of Stevens Jackson, which provided assistance in the Brown V. Board of Education case that was playing out in Topeka, the state capitol. As a young black lawyer then, Haley viewed the 1954 Brown decision as a giant step to affirm the dignity of black children in America. It was on the mind of many young black lawyers who were growing up during the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. He saw the national battle against school segregation that took place in Topeka, and successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by former NAACP lawyer and civil rights giant Thurgood Marshall (who himself later became the first black Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), as an important chapter in the struggle to guarantee black children a right to education in this nation.
Before he died in 2015 at 89, Haley, who served under seven American presidents since 1969, and I had many conversations in the basement of his Silver Spring home in Maryland. I would normally ask him to reflect on his life and the lessons learned regarding issues that are important to the black experience. I once even asked him to respond to what Malcolm X said about him in “The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley,” that it was because of street fighters like Malcolm that enabled Haley to become one of the first black state senators in Kansas. Haley would always bring up two things: the role his mentor Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, the former president of Morehouse College played in his life, and the impact the Brown decision will have on blacks for generations to come.
To Haley and many who belonged to his generation, that monumental desegregation fight championed by Thurgood Marshall in defense of the humanity and education of black children, served as an impetus to the Civil Rights Movement. Today, it underscores the need to continue to push for serious reforms in educational systems that represent deep structural inequities. Since the historic Supreme Court ruling, the spirit of the Brown decision has guided every educational battle for racial justice to ensure that black children are not the recipients of inferior and under-resourced education.
Nowhere in the country right now exemplifies the spirit of the Brown decision, and the need to continue to demand quality education in predominantly poor black districts in the nation than Detroit, where the recent U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, affirmed that Detroit kids have a right to literacy. That it is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. The ruling in favor of poor black kids, is in response to a lawsuit that was filed in 2016 against the state under former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder by some Detroit students claiming that their district has been the product of years of disinvestment by the state. The verdict by the second highest court in the land is a moral indictment of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who continued to fight the lawsuit after she became governor, which sharply contradicted her “education governor,” mantra.
That Gretchen Whitmer, a white liberal governor of the modern era, will stand in direct contravention to the educational aspirations of black children in Detroit, which the right to literacy lawsuit represented, is not only disgraceful but abhorrent. If she understands the weight of history bearing on her action, Gov. Whitmer, will settle the case right away, and not head to the U.S. Supreme Court to appeal the decision. She should do so immediately and with “all deliberate speed,” harkening the watershed decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The more she refuses to speak publicly about the issue to say what her next move will be regarding the ruling, the more children in Detroit, the largest black city in the nation, continue to wait in vain for something that they should be deserving of like all other children.
Whitmer’s stance against the right to literacy case is a complete betrayal of the spirit of the historic Brown decision. To move her toward a settlement, it will also require a conscientious apparatus of the black community to make it clear to Gov. Whitmer that her position is unacceptable, and that the future of black kids cannot be held hostage by her current indecision on the ruling. Blacks in Detroit, Benton Harbor, Flint and across the state, must see the appeal court ruling as a significant gateway to rightfully demand that the state takes responsibility for its failures in Detroit, and make the needed investments to help unleash the potentials of black children and prepare them for a better and productive future.
The governor should be reminded whenever she comes to Detroit, that she does not only need to settle the lawsuit, but that she also must publicly apologize to the underserved Detroit children for continuing to fight against their case. This is going to require political will to speak truth to power to the governor, in a way that leaves her no choice, but to meet the demands of children whose education have long been mortgaged on the altar of political expediency.
Even Thurgood Marshall after winning the Brown case, and later became an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, noted that the fight for equality was not over. That blacks must continue to pressure their elected officials to deliver on the promise of equality and justice, just as the pressure is on Whitmer now to right the wrongs of history in Detroit, which she vowed to do during her 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
Marshall echoed that message on accountability in 1978, when he went to his alma mater, Howard University Law School, to speak at the installation of Wiley Branton as the new dean of the law school. Branton, was among the students who helped integrate the University of Arkansas Law School alongside George Haley.
“Be aware of that myth, that everything is going to be all right. Don’t give in. I add that, because it seems to me, that what we need to do today is to refocus. Back in the 30’s and 40’s, we could go no place but to court. We knew then, the court was not the final solution. Many of us knew the final solution would have to be politics, if for no other reason, politics is cheaper than lawsuits,” Marshall said. “So now we have both. We have our legal arm, and we have our political arm. Let’s use them both. And don’t listen to this myth that it can be solved by either or that it has already been solved. Take it from me, it has not been solved.”
The salient advice Marshall gave at Howard University Law School, is relevant today in light of the fact that Gov. Whitmer has yet to fully address the ruling publicly. Still, the question about the education of black students in Detroit remain one of the most important features in the struggle for racial equality in Michigan. The fact that the governor so far has chosen to only make reference to the ruling in the media through her African American spokeswoman Tiffany Brown, instead of herself speaking directly to the consequences of the historic verdict about educational inequality, shows the lack of deference on an issue significant to black life, which continues to haunt our nation’s quest for equality.
It could be argued that the entire black experience rest on the ruling from the appeal court. Because how can blacks be expected to participate fully in this democratic experience, if black children, who are the future of black communities continue to receive sub-standard education? Why should we allow white liberal powerbrokers like Gov. Whitmer to continue to ignore solutions to that challenge of inequality, and at the same time pretend as if they are empathetic to our concerns?
Gov. Whitmer’s unconscionable opposition to the right to literacy case must be seen through the lens of the epic battles waged for blacks to have access to education by the late Damon J. Keith, former senior judge of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former Howard University Law Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who was one of the key architects in dismantling Jim Crow era laws and others. They played a crucial role in forcing America to be fair to a race of people who were brought here against their will as slaves since 1619.
George Haley reminded me long ago that we must continue to narrate that painful experience and tear down the walls of racial injustice. Derrick Bell, the first black tenured professor at Harvard University Law School, warned us in his eloquent and didactic writings that white liberals could be guilty of paying lip service to the genuine push for equality for black people.
As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer becomes the latest example of a lip service white liberal politician, we must not rest in demanding that she settles the case as soon as possible. The legacies of Keith, Marshall, Houston and the rest of the gallant soldiers of history who fought racism in our educational system demand that we refuse the governor’s silence. She must act now.
Bankole Thompson is a distinguished journalist and author who is the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank. He is a twice-a-week opinion columnist at The Detroit News, where his column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. He is the host of REDLINE, a news magazine and hard-nosed commentary show on 910AM Super Station-Detroit, which airs Monday through Friday from 11am-1pm EST.