Special Report

The New Civil Rights Leaders

Old-school civil rights activists are fading into the history books -- making way for a new generation.

By 9.16.11

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Quick: Who are the nation's most relevant civil rights leaders? Neither Jesse Jackson nor Al Sharpton fit the bill. And it isn't Benjamin Todd Jealous, the far lesser known president of the increasingly irrelevant National Association for the Advancement of Black People.

These days, civil rights leadership can be claimed by folks such as Geoffrey Canada, CNN commentator Dr. Steve Perry, and Gwen Samuel. Each one is taking on the biggest concern among black families -- and families throughout the nation overall -- in this century: the reform of America's lackluster traditional public schools.

As head of the Harlem Children's Zone, Canada has garnered acclaim over the past decade for his launch of three charter schools that have challenged the longstanding view that poverty is somehow a barrier to students succeeding academically. One of the heroes featured in Al Gore friend Davis Guggenheim's documentary, Waiting for "Superman", Canada has also emerged as one of the leading spokesmen for combating the decades of mediocrity that has marked education. This summer, for example, Canada, along with other charter school operators and the families whose kids attend them, led protests against the American Federation of Teachers and the NAACP after the two filed an unsuccessful lawsuit aimed at stopping the expansion of those schools. The protests proved to be particularly embarrassing to the NAACP, which found itself in the awkward position of opposing Canada and the very black families it proclaims to support.

Then there's Perry, the blunt-speaking social worker who has garnered national acclaim for his work as founder of Capital Prep Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., rated by U.S. News & World Report among the best-performing schools serving black and Latino students. Besides hosting his "Perry's Principles" segment on CNN and writing a new book on how parents can navigate an often hostile education system, Perry has emerged as one of the leading critics of status-quo defenders like the AFT, the much larger National Education Association, and Diane Ravitch, the once respectable former George Bush appointee who has become the darling of teachers' union bosses. Declared Perry in an interview this week: "These are people who don't see your children as being as capable as theirs."

Meanwhile Samuel, a mother from the tiny Connecticut city of Meriden, has become one of the foremost leaders of the Parent Power movement, an emerging collection of urban and suburban families pushing for reform. In the past year alone, the two organizations she leads, the State of Black CT Alliance and the Connecticut Parents Union, helped pass the nation's second Parent Trigger law -- which allows a majority of parents to petition for the overhaul of a school -- and filed a series of lawsuits aimed at forcing the Nutmeg State to allow parents to exercise school choice so their kids can flee failure mills.

The level of fear among teachers' union leaders over Samuel's efforts -- and that of fellow Parent Power groups such as Parent Revolution (which passed the nation's first Parent Trigger law) became clear last month when education magazine Dropout Nation revealed a presentation given by the AFT at one of its conferences that showed how its Connecticut affiliate worked unsuccessfully to kibosh the law (it did manage to water it down). The widespread outcry forced AFT President Randi Weingarten to issue two apologies for the language contained in the presentation -- and a meeting with Samuel in order to save face.

Canada, Perry and Samuel aren't the only ones emerging as the leading voices for black families. A new generation of activists such as Derrell Bradford, who has championed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's efforts to expand school choice and subject teachers to private sector-style performance management, and music stars like John Legend (who has helped make school reform a mainstream issue) are also advancing the cause. Another group consists of big-city politicians such as Newark mayor Cory Booker, who has gained acclaim for reducing a 23 percent decline in homicides between 2007 and 2009 (the latest data available) and for leading a school reform effort funded in part by a controversial $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. There's also Kevin Chavous, the former D.C. city councilman who helped push for the expansion of charter schools, as well as the launch (and revival) of D.C.'s current voucher program; he has also founded such groups as Democrats for Education Reform, which has helped shape President Barack Obama's education reform agenda.

The leading light of this group is the fiery Howard Fuller, who, as superintendent of the Milwaukee school district in 1991, helped successfully push for the nation's first school voucher program. Within the past two decades, Fuller has become one of the foremost school reformers and civil rights activists, cofounding such groups as Black Alliance for Educational Options, which has been one of the leading forces for expanding school choice. (Chavous, who helped cofound BAEO, is Fuller's successor as its chairman.) Declared Andy Rotherham (who writes the Eduwonk blog) in his Time column: "[Fuller's] tireless quest to empower low-income parents led him far from traditional political allegiances."

Certainly old-school civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the National Urban League, and Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition remain influential forces in African-American politics and key activists within Democratic Party politics. For good reason. During the last century, they have earned the esteem of generations of blacks with their protest marches, lawsuits and legislative battles to rightfully end legal and de facto Jim Crow segregation.

On education, in particular, old-school civil rights groups successfully pushed for the integration of public schools. They also used the courts to force states to pour more money into the urban schools, either by transferring property dollars from wealthier suburban districts or increasing funding to those districts from state dollars. Driving those efforts are two outdated notions: that moving poor black, white and Latino students into schools attended by middle-class peers will result in improving their success in school, and that spending more money on education will lead to better schools in urban communities. Both notions tend to favor Baby Boomer teachers, who tend to be their most influential members.

But a younger generation of blacks, who realize that economic freedom is critical to social equality, understands that neither integration nor increased funding have done much to address the low quality of teaching and academic curricula -- the issues at the heart of the nation's education crisis. The fact that one out of every two young black ninth-grade men drop out of high school before senior year -- and the consequences in the form of long-term unemployment and low income -- has also made blacks more concerned about education, especially in an age in which what you know is more important than what you can do with your hands. Young black families, particularly those in urban communities often served by failure factories, have learned from experience that integration was a false promise and have become savvy about the role played by teachers' unions in contributing to the mediocre quality of urban schools.

From the perspective of young blacks and even some of their Baby Boomer counterparts, education is the civil rights issue of this generation. So they have joined common cause with big-city mayors, reform-minded politicians from both sides of the political aisle, and young centrist Democrats. Forty-nine percent of African Americans surveyed in 2009 by the school policy journal Education Next and Harvard University supported charter schools, a seven-point increase over the previous year.

Old-school civil rights activists haven't taken too kindly to their loss of influence. Nor are they happy with President Obama's embrace of the school reform movement (even though many of the groups were not supportive of his successful presidential campaign three years ago). Last year, a group led by the NAACP and the National Urban League issued a manifesto decrying Obama's efforts -- including the Race to the Top initiative, which, among other things, successfully pushed states such as California and New York to expand the number of charter schools -- demanding that the administration back their array of warmed-over measures instead. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan -- backed wholeheartedly by black school reformers -- repaid them in kind by rhetorically smacking them around for failing to realize the importance of their efforts.

The battle in New York City over the expansion of charters placed the conflict between old-school civil rights groups and black school reformers into full view. Chavous chastised the NAACP for having "become the protector of the status quo it once fought", while Perry accused it of being "a jobs program" for teachers' unions. The head of the NAACP's New York affiliate, Hazel Dukes, told a charter school parent that she and her fellow supporters were doing the bidding of "slave masters." The national office went further by issuing a press release accusing Chavous and Perry (along with other school reformers) of being funded by "right wing opponents of traditional public schools."

The results didn't turn out well for the NAACP. Nor can it even count on all old-school civil rights activists to be on its side. One of the foremost school reformers out there is the National Urban League, whose president, Michael Lomax, serves on the boards of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools and the KIPP chain of charter schools. And Sharpton has even teamed up with former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein and former House speaker Newt Gingrich to champion charters. The NAACP and other old-school civil rights groups will either have to change -- or disappear into the history books.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.