Civil rights

Fear of Equality: Why Black Education Remains a Civil Rights Issue 190 Years After Nat Turner’s Rebellion


Turner and his friends traveled from house to house in their neighborhood in Southampton County, Virginia, freeing slaves and murdering around 60 of the white men, women and children they encountered. Their goal, Turner later told an interviewer, was “to bring terror and devastation wherever we go.”

The state militia quelled the rebellion within days, and the justice system and white vigilantes killed at least 200 black Virginians, many of whom were not involved in Turner’s attempt to end slavery. Turner himself was captured in October, tried in November, sentenced to death and hanged.

But white Virginians and whites in neighboring southern states remained scared. Turner had been, in their minds, a well-treated and educated slave, who knew his Bible well and seemed to be the very last kind of person they would have expected to revolt. And so they responded to the rebellion in two ways. They turned against the idea that slavery was a bad thing and instead began to claim that human slavery was a positive good.

And southern states have passed laws criminalizing teaching American slaves to read and write.

Denying black American slaves access to education exiled them from one place in the nation. The Framers had organized the United States quite explicitly not on the principles of religion or tradition, but rather on the principles of the Enlightenment: the idea that by applying knowledge and reasoning to the natural world, men could find the best way to order society. A person excluded from access to education cannot participate in this national project. Instead, this person was excluded from society, condemned to be controlled by rulers who mobilized religion and propaganda to defend their dominance.

In 1858, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond explained that society needed “a class to do the menial tasks, to do the chores of life. That is, a class requiring little intelligence and little skill.

But when they organized in the 1850s to push back the efforts of elite slavers like Hammond to take control of the national government, members of the nascent Republican Party recognized the importance of education. In 1859, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln explained that those who adhered to the “mud sill” theory “assumed that work and education were incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible…. According to this theory, the education of workers is not only unnecessary, but pernicious and dangerous.

Lincoln argued that workers were not just chores, but rather the heart of the economy. “The prudent and penniless beginner in the world, works for wages for a while, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then works on her own for a while longer, and finally hires another new rookie to help her. He linked the political vision of the Framers to this economic vision. To thrive, he argued, men need “learning from books,” and he called for universal education. An educated community, he said, “will also be independent from crowned kings, kings of money and kings of the earth.”

When they controlled the federal government in the 1860s, Republicans passed the Land Grant College Act, funding public universities so that men without rich fathers could access higher education. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Republicans also tried to use the federal government to fund public schools for poor black and white Americans, distributing the money according to illiteracy rates. But President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill on the grounds that the federal government did not have to protect black education; this process, he said, belonged to the states – which for the next century denied blacks equal access to schools, excluding them from full participation in American society and condemning them to menial work.

Then, in 1954, after decades of pressure from black and brown Americans for equal access to public schools, the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren, former Republican Governor of California, unanimously agreed that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional.

Immediately, white southern lawmakers launched a campaign of what they called “massive resistance” to integration. Some counties in Virginia have closed their public schools. Others have taken funds from integrated public schools and used a grant system to redistribute those funds to separate private schools. These segregating academies dovetailed perfectly with Ronald Reagan’s rise to political power with a message that public employees had grown too powerful and that public enterprises should be privatized.

After Reagan’s election, his secretary of education commissioned a study of public schools across the country, believing there was a “widespread public perception that something is seriously lacking in our education system.” The resulting report, titled “A Nation in Peril”, announced: “The educational foundations of our society are being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and people”.

Although a subsequent study commissioned in 1990 by the Secretary of Energy found that the data in the original report did not support the report’s findings, Reagan nonetheless used them to justify the privatization of schools. He swore after the report was released that he: “would continue to work in the coming months for the passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, education savings accounts, voluntary school prayers. and abolition of the Ministry of Education. Our agenda is to restore the quality of education by increasing competition and strengthening parental choice and local control.

The drive to move taxpayer dollars from public schools to private academies through a voucher system has remained a top priority for conservatives in the movement keen to dismantle the federal government, although a recent Wisconsin study shows that coupons don’t actually save taxpayer dollars, and academics do. I don’t believe they help students perform better than they would in public schools.

Calling education a civil rights issue – as President Barack Obama had done in calling for more funding for schools – former President Trump called on Congress to fund “choice of school for young people disadvantaged, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnetic, religious or home school that suits them.

In fact, most of those who use vouchers are already enrolled in private schools. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was a strong supporter of school choice and the voucher system; she and her family donated $ 600,000 to promote school voting laws in the decade leading up to 2017.

The coronavirus pandemic has sped up funding for public schools as Trump struggled to shift funds from closed public schools to private schools. In December 2020, he signed an executive order allowing states to use money from a federal anti-poverty program for vouchers, and by mid-2021 at least 8 states had launched new voucher programs. A number of Republican governors are using federal funds from bills designed to fight the pandemic to push the good guys.

In 1831, lawmakers fearing the equality that is at the heart of our Declaration of Independence ensured that black Americans could not have equal access to education.

In 1971, when segregating academies were gaining ground, the achievement gap between white and black grade 8 students in reading was 57 points. In 1988, the year of the highest level of school integration in the country, this gap had fallen to 18 points. By 1992, it had risen to 30 points, and it has not fallen below 25 points since.