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Five Lessons for Ed Reformers from the Freedom Riders

On Monday, May 16, 2011, PBS honored the 50-year anniversary of the Freedom Riders by premiering a documentary highlighting the journey.


The Congress for Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) was a new organization in the civil rights movement. They organized the freedom rides in May of 1961 as a challenge to the segregated Southern way of life and to push the new Kennedy administration to take notice of the inequalities felt every day in the Deep South.


As I sat there watching this historical movement of our nation’s history, I was awed by the courage of these young adults and received a new perspective on John and Robert Kennedy as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I also thought about what civil rights plagues our country now—education.


So what lessons could the current education reform movement learn from the Freedom Riders?


1. Agree to Disagree

CORE was created as a separate organization from the NAACP and the Movement led by Martin Luther King. These prominent civil rights organizations disagreed with the concept of the freedom rides. They felt like the people in Alabama and Mississippi were not ready for this type of push. However, when 17 Freedom Riders were beaten outside of a bus station, MLK went to Montgomery and called President Kennedy to ask for assistance.


This reminds me of the fight between ed reformers who are for charter schools, teacher evaluation tied to students test scores, reduced union regulations, etc versus reformers who are for fixing public schools and working within union rules.


Although both sides believe they are correct in their approach, neither can loose sight of the goal. Just as the Freedom Fighters couldn’t stand to see African-Americans get their rights violated, ed reformers can’t stand by and see children get their rights violated. In this time of crisis, the sides of ed reform need to agree to disagree and stay focused on the children.


2. Start Small

Small numbers can stir big reactions. In total there were only 400 freedom riders. The freedom rides started May 4th and on November 1, 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) issues a ruling enforcing the desegregation of interstate travel. The ruling removed “whites only” signs from terminals and enforced the end of segregated seating on interstate bus transit.


There are over 3 million teachers and decades of reform efforts that haven’t had long-standing effects. NCLB and the Race to the Stop are too big and are built on a foundation of unproven success. One movement does not fit all. We need to focus on the individual schools, the small community and create a method of improvement that works for them. As each freedom ride had a different route and a different compilation of passengers, each education reform needs to take on its own character all for the greater good.


3. Listen to those who know

Despite countless seminars and preparation, the first freedom rides never reached their destination. The riders, primarily from the North, were curtailed from their efforts and the missions were aborted. Then Fisk University students boarded the buses. The riders were primarily from the South. They knew the landscape and had seen firsthand the racial tension that they were getting into. On May 17th, these students were jailed in Birmingham and driven to the Tennessee border in the middle of the night. On May 19th, they returned to Birmingham, unwilling to abort their mission.


Teachers know what’s needed in schools more than anyone else. Every day they enter classrooms, speak to parents and to each other. Although they may face limited supplies, support or development, they came to work every day to teach. They shouldn’t be cut out of the conversation but should be leading the conversation.



4. Diversity Matters

The riders were purposely chosen. They were a mix of races and gender. One ride in particular encompassed religious leaders from a spectrum of belief systems. CORE believed that it was important to show that is was not just Black people whom wanted change but it was all people who wanted change. When a young white man was asked before departing for his ride, why he was doing it, he answered, “Some are more conscious of their responsibility than others.”


An article from a few weeks ago highlighted the fact that the majority of ed reform leaders spent the majority of their education in private schools. I’m sure that a study would also show that many of these leaders also have ties with Teach for America. There is nothing wrong with private schools or Teach for America but there are other perspectives and voices that need to be heard. There are others who are conscious of their responsibility and ed reformers need to be purposeful in who they are choosing to lead the education reform ride.

5. Take Advantage of the Unexpected

The Freedom Riders were a nuisance to the Kennedy Administration. Kennedy was interested in foreign policy not the issues in the South. Robert Kennedy thought by putting the Riders in Parchman State Prison Farm in Mississippi, they would call off their protest. Instead the Riders announced a plan to fill the prison with Freedom Riders extending their movement.


A great line from the documentary was, “Who is Diane Nash?” Diane Nash was a young lady from Fish University who became a leader including giving a lecture to the Assistant Attorney General. The break-thru did not come from the Big Dogs already at the table. CORE was the little guy next to the NAACP and Dr King. MLK never boarded a bus. He actually refused to board the bus giving the explanation of his multiple arrests and probation requirements. Leaders don't always do what we want them to do or should do, but we have to do what is right anyway.


Many educators have been disappointed by the reform efforts of President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan. However, that’s not an excuse. All of us will have an unexpected opportunity to voice our opinion on education reform. What matters is what will you do when the time arises?


This post is part of the Those Who Can series.

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