Learning Curve: What would King say?

On what would have been his 81st birthday Friday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been delighted with the people speaking from his former pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church and what their presence signified about the success of his civil rights movement.

Fiery civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton spoke, as did U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who brought regards from America’s first African-American president Barack Obama.

The roster featured Atlanta’s black mayor, Kasim Reed, and black school superintendent, Beverly Hall. Also on hand was Alisha Morgan, the first black representative elected to the Statehouse from Cobb County and the youngest woman in the House.

If King had surveyed the diverse crowd of 2,000 gathered to honor his achievements, he would have known his sacrifice and effort were not for naught.

However, had King left the sanctuary and traveled to the surrounding neighborhoods, he would have seen how much more needs to be done to fully realize his ideals of equality and equal opportunity.

And no place is the need more apparent than in urban schools, which are seeing levels of segregation that would surprise and sadden King. A few miles from Ebenezer is a middle school where 91 percent of students are African-American, and a high school where 94 percent of students are.

King would also be disappointed with Georgia’s college campuses. A study released last week rating flagship public universities in America on access for low-income and underrepresented minority students ranked University of Georgia last.

At UGA, only 9.4 percent of freshmen in the 2007-2008 class were African American, Latino, or American Indian. Yet these students accounted for 38.9 percent of Georgia’s 2007 high school graduates, according to the Education Trust report, “Opportunity Adrift.”

Even more startling to King — himself a scholar who entered Morehouse College at the age of 15 — would be the achievement gap between black and white students, a gap that many people blame a failure of black parents to promote academics.

But many of the speakers at the Ebenezer event, including Secretary Duncan, suggested there were other, more insidious reasons for the stubborn gap. “If Dr. King were here, he would see a lot that was changing,” said Duncan, “but he would also see resegregating communities and schools that are far from equal.”

Duncan told the crowd that he was revitalizing the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights, which enforces civil rights laws and protects students against gender and racial discrimination. “In recent years, this office has not been as aggressive as it should be. But that’s about to change,” Duncan said.

Among the initial observations of his staff after touring schools around the country is that poor schools tend to have the least effective teachers and the fewest advanced course offerings. And disciplinary actions fall disproportionately on black boys, Duncan said.

While agreeing that minority and poor schools are shortchanged, the Rev. Al Sharpton delivered a strong message of personal responsibility, explaining how his own mother — a domestic worker — never expected less of him because he was poor, lived in public housing and had been abandoned by his father. His mother took him to church every week, making him believe, he said, that, “If God was for me, then it didn’t matter if the whole world was against me.”

“Low expectations is the new racism,” said Sharpton. “Nobody has to tell you to get in the back. All they have to do is convince you that your place is in the back.”

Sharpton told the students that King’s dreams of equality would not be fulfilled “by what President Obama does in the White House, but what you students do in your house.”

All the speakers called education the next civil rights battle, saying that today’s shackles are a lack of education and illiteracy.

A quality education was “a game changer for me and it will be a game changer for you,” said newly sworn Atlanta Mayor Reed, speaking directly to the 500 students in the church audience. “I want you to work hard and I want you to dream. But I want you to work harder than you dream because that’s how you get there.”

Another theme in the comments was the urgency of the education crisis in America. “Now is the time to act,’’ extolled Morgan (D-Austell). “For every moment we wait or remain silent, we risk the future of a child.”

Duncan agreed, telling the crowd, “We can’t wait five or 10 more years to transform struggling schools. We need to act now, and we need to act together.”