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Martin Luther King Jr.’s hope for equal education in Memphis still a dream, new book says

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a mass rally in Memphis on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a mass rally in Memphis on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination.
Courtesy of Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis Libraries

In the 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, his dream of an education system providing equal economic opportunity to black children remains unfulfilled, according to a new book published by a Memphis advocacy group.

“An Education Dream,” edited by Mendell Grinter, the executive director of Campaign for School Equity, includes interviews with Memphis and national education leaders and documents major changes in the city’s school system. The book was published in conjunction with the National Civil Rights Museum and its yearlong commemoration of King’s legacy as the 50th anniversary of his death approaches April 4.

“The walling off of Negroes from equal education is part of the historical design to submerge him in second-class status,” King said in a 1964 speech as he accepted an award from the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City teachers union. “Therefore, as Negroes have struggled to be free, they have had to fight for the opportunity for a decent education.”

The book cites anemic test scores in the Memphis districts that educate mostly black children and graduation rates below the national average as evidence King’s vision has not been realized.

Grinter, who formed the organization in 2016 after breaking away from a national group advocating for charters and private school vouchers, said Memphis education leaders are still grappling with what Tennessee’s former education chief called “a Jim Crow public education system.”

“With this book, we hope to amplify Dr. King’s assertion that education is one of the cornerstones for economic advancement, celebrate the successes that have been made, and inspire the community to continue working to make Dr. King’s education dream a reality for all children,” Grinter said in a statement.

The book touches on significant milestones in Memphis education history such as the city’s attempt at school integration, Black Monday protests in which teachers and students left school to march to City Hall with a list of demands to improve black representation in the school system, and the more recent merger of the city and county school systems in 2013.

Today, many school leaders say they struggle to educate students from impoverished families, citing an overwhelming number of factors that impede a child’s education that is outside the control of teachers. The book acknowledges those challenges, but insists school systems can do more to deliver quality education to those students, most of whom are children of color.

“Pretending that social conditions independent of schooling have no impact on a student’s trajectory is wishful thinking; using those conditions to excuse schools is irresponsible,” said Daniel Kiel, the director of a documentary about the children who integrated Memphis schools.

John King, who served as U.S. Secretary of Education during the Obama administration, said America’s education system falls short of equality for all children, “but we’ve made progress.”

“I think that’s the American narrative,” he said in his interview. “I carry with me a tremendous sense of urgency about trying to get us closer to that vision of equality of opportunity faster.”

Those quoted in the book include:

  • Chris Caldwell, school board member for Shelby County Schools
  • Earle Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis
  • Terri Freeman, president of National Civil Rights Museum
  • Howard Fuller, professor of education at Marquette University and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning
  • Kevin Huffman, former Tennessee education commissioner
  • Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform
  • Daniel Kiel, associate professor at the University of Memphis and director of “The Memphis 13” documentary
  • John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education and president and CEO of The Education Trust
  • Cardell Orrin, executive director, Stand for Children Memphis
  • Tami Sawyer, director of diversity and cultural competence at Teach For America Memphis
  • Roblin Webb, executive director of Freedom Preparatory Academy
  • Bobby White, founder and CEO, Frayser Community Schools

Campaign for School Equity plans to host two events to discuss the book. The first will be 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 14, at the National Civil Rights Museum.

The second will be 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, March 16, in New York City in partnership with Democrats for Education Reform, the Walton Family Foundation, The 74, and StudentsFirst New York. (The Walton foundation supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

This story has been updated to note that the Walton Family Foundation supports Chalkbeat as well as the New York City event promoting this book.

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