View as Webpage • February 24, 2023

Inside this Special Edition 

  • It Takes a Village to Change the World
  • 33 Years Later, Tough on Crime Still Bad for Students 
  • Black History through Music, Art, Song & Dance
  • Bans on Black Literature and Learning are Nothing New – State Lawmakers Must Reject Calls to Reinstate Antebellum-era Policies 
  • Get Classroom Lessons in IDRA's We All Belong – School Resource Hub 

It Takes a Village to Change the World

by Steve Kemgang

Every year, Black History month presents an opportunity to reflect on the legacies that have impacted the world we live in today. In August 3, 1857, Frederick Douglas gave a speech in New York on the struggle toward freedom where he mentioned “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Despite the many obstacles they faced, we live in a better society due to the courage of Malcolm X, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr., and others. Though there is still more work to do in the fight for equality and justice in America, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Their heroic stories and esteemed legacies give us hope and inspire us to never give up in our pursuit toward making an impact.

Outside of learning Black History from my parents and other family members, my teachers were also instrumental figures throughout my childhood and teenage years. Two who left lasting impressions were from my third and seventh grade years. Their lessons not only covered the figures known all around the world today, but also amplified the roles other individuals played around them.

One such individual was Alberta King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s mom, who was an activist in the Civil Rights movement and profoundly influenced and counseled him from childhood throughout his adult life. Her tenacity and steadfast devotion in the face of adversity positively impacted the world forever.

Remembering these stories encourages us and gives us hope to continue standing for what is right and advocating for a more equitable future. Although there are challenges ahead, we are facing them from a position of strength and solidarity. 

33 Years Later, Tough on Crime Still Bad for Students 

by Makiah Lyons

This month marks the 33rd anniversary of the introduction of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 to the U.S. Senate. This particular legislation and others closely related to the “Tough on Crime” initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s ushered in a new era of school policy marked by punitive punishment, and in particular the implementation of zero-tolerance policies. Lawmakers intended the Gun-Free School Zones Act to reduce gun violence in school zones, but the law was later overturned in the U.S. Supreme Court.


In 1994, Congress introduced the Gun-Free Schools Act, requiring states to establish laws providing for the expulsion of a student for a minimum of a year for bringing a weapon to school. The act also instructed schools to refer students to juvenile or criminal legal systems for violating this law.


In 1995, Texas revised the state’s education law code, including the school discipline code to establish zero-tolerance for specified infractions. In the same year, Georgia enacted a law requiring each local board of education to establish zero-tolerance policies.


Policymakers designed zero-tolerance policies to create a consistent approach to misbehavior that threatened school safety. These policies mirrored the criminal legal system’s “Tough on Crime” movement away from rehabilitative laws and toward increasingly punitive zero-tolerance policies that set mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses or certain crimes involving weapons.


Soon, however, schools expanded and applied zero-tolerance policies to less serious and more subjective offenses, growing increasingly vague. As a result, schools used more exclusionary practices to address minor infractions like class disruption, tardiness and dress code violations.


Educators also differentially and inconsistently applied these policies. Data from 1991 to 2005 demonstrated that Black students were more likely to be subject to harsher disciplinary decisions, like suspension or expulsion, for less serious and more subjective crime than white students.


Schools with a large percentage of Black students are more likely to use zero-tolerance policies and punitive punishment, and Black students are more likely to be enrolled in a school with a higher degree of security measures. High security measures including, school police, metal detectors, and drug-sniffing dogs, are associated with not only increased suspension rates but more pronounced Black-white disparities within those suspensions.


Zero-tolerance policies have been widely documented as ineffective, undermining student achievement and making schools more dangerous. The frequent use of exclusionary discipline thwarts both school and community safety, encouraging students to disengage from their school community and educational process.


Research consistently shows that schools that suspend and expel students at high rates do not see gains in achievement but have higher dropout rates and incidences of criminal legal system involvement among their students.


These policies disproportionately push Black and Latino students out of schools and into the criminal justice system.


Over the past decade, organizations and advocates have fought to end policies that have harmed generations of students and replace them with restorative practices that encourage safer schools.


As we celebrate Black History Month and honor the past, we should use those lessons as a reminder to fight for a better and brighter future for ourselves and young people. 

Black History through Music, Art, Song & Dance

by Terrence Wilson, J.D.

When I think about Black History Month when I was growing up, my mind does not go to books that I read or lessons that I learned in school. My mind goes to the vibrant music, art, song and dance that characterized the Black history activities that I participated in throughout my childhood and adolescent years. 

I remember the poster painted by a Black artist that I begged my parents to buy me when we were walking through the annual 2nd street (or 2 street for those who knew) festival in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. I remember seeing the art depicting everything from nature to fashion, all painted, drawn and sculpted by Black artists. That poster was a constant reminder that art has the ability to resonate and inspire without having to make a sound. 

But I remember plenty of sounds too. I remember the sounds of attending my first musical, Bubbling Brown Sugar, a Tony-nominated musical by Black playwright Loften Mitchell. In the musical, the characters were transported back to 1920s Harlem and experienced the coolest culture that my young eyes had ever seen.

I remember the sounds of the saxophone played at our local jazz festival. I was so impressed with those musicians that I learned to play myself. I remember seeing Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform Revelations with majority Black ensembles and being amazed at the grace these dancers displayed and the depth of experience that they could express through their movements. I am even more amazed at these works given the time that Alvin Ailey created them in the 1950s. 

Reminiscing on these childhood experiences reminds me that Black History Month is so much more than Black history facts in a book. Black history is happening every day, and we can experience it through the sounds, sights and movements of Black musicians, artists, dancers and creative of all types all over the world.  

Photo: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Revelations. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Bans on Black Literature and Learning are Nothing New –

State Lawmakers Must Reject Calls to Reinstate Antebellum-era Policies 

by Paige Duggins-Clay, J.D. 

When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, the authors notably omitted any explicit rights or responsibilities for public education. Accordingly, when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, the 10th Amendment delegated the responsibility of providing education to the states. 

With this critical decision, the fledgling federal government created the opportunity for states to legally bar Black and other non-white people from education, a precedent that would hold for nearly a century of this nation’s history. 


236 years later, states continue to wield substantial power over children’s educational opportunities. Our nation has made great strides toward dismantling the discriminatory systems and structures that create harmful barriers for Black children to learn and thrive in public education. 

But recent efforts to obscure and censor truthful conversations about our nation’s past and present create harmful school climates and indicate that our state and school leaders still have lessons to learn about the intent and impact of historical efforts to limit educational opportunity. 


To date, thousands of books by or about Black, LGBTQ+ and other systemically-marginalized groups have been banned from our nation’s schools. Banned books include materials discussing the United States’ history of racism; prominent books by Black women authors with themes of race and racism; anti-Black police brutality; and fiction centered on Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ characters and plotlines. 


Similarly, at least 203 local, state, and federal government entities across the country have introduced 619 bills, resolutions, executive orders, opinion letters, statements, and other measures restricting access to truthful information about race and systemic racism. These regressive censorship policies ban so-called “divisive concepts,” a term that is being used as a pretext to target primarily Black and LGBTQ+ educators, scholars, and – ultimately – the students who they support. 

Students and educators report feeling unsafe talking about the reality of racial and other forms of injustice, even as they watch such injustice unfold in horrific and stark detail through news, social media and their own lived experiences. 


Banning the perspectives and stories of Black educators, activists and writers is nothing new. 


Between 1800 and 1835, the majority of southern states enacted legislation that made it a crime to teach enslaved individuals to read and write. These restrictions were necessary for both practical and ideological purposes: illiterate, enslaved African Americans were unable to read or write the documentation necessary for Black people to move around the slave slates. And their illiteracy was a dead giveaway in the free world if they attempted to run away. Further, it was imperative for the integrity of the slaving institution that enslaved African Americans did not have opportunities to access news of abolition efforts and other revolutionary rhetoric from the North. 


As Heather Williams notes in Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, slave masters made every attempt to control their captives’ thoughts and imaginations, because “maintaining a system of bondage in the Age of Enlightenment depended upon the master’s ability to speak for the slave, to deny his or her humanity, and to draw a line between slave consciousness and human will.” 

The tension that the possibility of slave literacy provoked between slave owners and Black laborers sparked intense conflict, as the ability to read revealed to the world that America’s most valuable property had a mind – while the potential to write foretold the ability to construct an alternate narrative about the bondage America kept them in. 


Cognizant of the revolutionary potential of Black education, southern lawmakers enacted strict laws that forbade the teaching of enslaved and often even free Blacks to read or write. In 1819, Virginia banned “all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing with such slaves… in the night; or any school for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or the night.” 

Similarly, in 1831 Alabama passed a law stating “Any person who shall endeavor or attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read, or write, shall… be fined.” 

And on February 16, 1847, Missouri passed an act prohibiting Black people from learning to read and write and assembling freely for worship services. 

It is clear that southern lawmakers linked Black literacy to slavery’s demise and invested considerable political energy and resources into enforcing a legal regime of Black ignorance and inferiority. 


Current efforts to limit the ability of all children to access ideas and information challenging normative attitudes, beliefs and perspectives on deep topics, such as racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination hearkens back to the policies of the antebellum era. And some of the strategies employed by state leaders to resist integration after Brown are the same strategies being pushed by some state leaders today. 


As Justice John Minor Wisdom, a legendary judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote in U.S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the fight for equal educational opportunity “is more than a matter of words.” He continued: “The attitude and purpose of public officials, school administrators and faculties are an integral part of any plan and determine its effectiveness more than the words employed. If these public agents translate their duty into affirmative and sympathetic action the plan will work; if their spirit is obstructive, or at best negative, little progress will be made, no matter what form of words may be used.” U.S. v. Jefferson County Bd. of Educ., 372 F.2d 836, 890 (1966) (citation omitted). 


As state lawmakers convene across the nation, Judge Wisdom’s observations serve as a sobering reminder that calls to limit the thinking, learning, teaching, and writing of Black students and educators is a dangerous precedent linked to a bygone era and should be unequivocally disavowed. 

We urge policymakers to reject censorship in all its forms and instead adopt policies affirming that all students deserve access to books, curricula and instruction that reflects their experiences, cultures and honest and accurate representations of history. 

Get Classroom Lessons in IDRA's

We All Belong – School Resource Hub 

IDRA’s school resource hub is designed for educators, families and policy advocates who want to make sure students receive a strong, truthful education in our public schools. It provides lesson plans for all grades, instructional best practices and historical resources to support educators and advocates in promoting culturally-sustaining schools and fighting harmful censorship policies. Below are some highlights!

The Real World: Understanding the Difference Education Makes

The Real World lesson offers students an opportunity to understand how higher education is linked to higher weekly incomes and how income impacts an individual's quality of life. Students will use weekly income for different racial groups with different levels of education to complete a budget for housing, transportation, food and entertainment." See middle school lesson

Sissieretta Jones – Opera Star & First African American Woman to Headline a Concert at Carnegie Hall

Sissieretta Jones was heralded as one of the greatest singers of her generation and a pioneer in the operatic tradition at a time when access to most classical concert halls in the United States were closed to Black performers and patrons. Learn more about this trailblazing classical performer. This is part of the Unladylike2020 series. See middle and high school lesson

The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

This lesson explores the events and legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Students will view C-SPAN video clips of historians and residents of Tulsa to learn what occurred and how it was remembered. Students will use this information to discuss the importance of learning about events like the Tulsa Race Massacre. See high school lesson

Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin

David Waldstreicher with C-SPAN talks about his book Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution, published by Hill and Wang. In the book he re-examined Benjamin Franklin, slavery and the American Revolution. In his speech, he argues that Benjamin Franklin was not the hero of abolitionism that many people remember. See high school lesson

IDRA is an independent, non-profit organization whose mission is to achieve equal educational opportunity through strong public schools that prepare all students to access and succeed in college.  

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