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Former NAACP head calls for investment in education during King day speech

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

The former head of the NAACP made a plea for investment in the education and advancement of the poor as a means to shore up the United States’ declining economic status, likening racial strife to an argument about who gets the business class seats as a plane loses altitude.

Addressing a multiracial audience at Wait Chapel on the campus of Wake Forest University on Monday evening as the keynote speaker in a program to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Todd Jealous said that King exemplified Jesus’ injunction to care for the injured stranger. The program was co-hosted by Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University.

King talked often near the end of his life “about his fear that just as we were integrating our house, it was starting to catch fire,” said Jealous, who recently stepped down as president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“We are in a plane that is rapidly losing altitude,” Jealous said. “We may in our daily lives be like so many before the Good Samaritan and look at the stranger in the ditch and say, ‘If I help them, what will happen to me?’ We’re on a plane that is rapidly losing altitude; we have no time for that. We can aspire to do what Jesus told us to do and Martin Luther King exemplified and so many others… and reverse the question and say, ‘If I don’t help, what will happen… to them?’ But when you are on a plane that is losing altitude, again, there is no ‘him,’ there is no ‘I,’ there is no ‘me’; there is only ‘us.’ The question we have to ask ourselves in this country today is: If we do not help each other, what will happen to us?” Jealous argued that the United States is losing economic ground to rising so-called “developing” nations such as Singapore, Brazil and India that have smaller achievement gaps between their wealthy and poor students.

“If we continue to tolerate underperforming schools, what will happen to us?” he asked. “If we continue to tolerate people at our state capitols who will not fund our schools equally, what will happen to us? If we do not realize there is no way to lead in an increasingly flat world without making our nation itself increasingly flat, I can tell you what will happen to us. It is what is about to happen to the iPad with a $40 tablet coming from India.”

Jealous also argued that the state’s public education systems need to allocate the most resources to the students with the highest needs, whom he characterized as having the “preparational equivalent of a bullet wound to the head.”

“We might call it a public-health approach to education,” he said. “Think about if you showed up at a big public hospital like Bellevue in New York City — biggest public hospital in the country — and you walk in with a bullet wound to the head. Imagine the type of care you might receive. And think about the friend who walks right behind you with a skinned knee. It’s not just that you would get more care, but you would probably have a better doctor to deal with that bullet wound to the head, and your friend might just get an attendant with a First Aid kit to put a bandage on that knee.”

Jealous praised the two schools, one a historically black university that is part of the UNC system and the other a private institution anchored in the Baptist faith, for maintaining a partnership to jointly celebrate the King holiday. Winston-Salem State University Chancellor Donald J. Reaves referenced that spirit of cooperation when he noted that black and white students from the two schools join forces in sitins to desegregate local lunch counters in February 1960, only days after more widely publicized efforts took off in Greensboro.

The program also included a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by the Wake Forest University Gospel Choir and a dance performance by the Institute of Divine Arts that incorporated one of King’s speeches.

Waiting to greet students from the two universities who had served on the planning committee for the program after his speech, Jealous said he plans to announce a new initiative in March, which he declined to discuss. For the moment, he said he is interested in traveling to universities to speak with young people. His next job, when he makes it public, he said, will be “in line” with his previous work, which includes civil rights leadership at the NAACP, domestic human rights work at Amnesty International, investigative reporting at the Jackson Advocate newspaper in Mississippi and community organizing in New York City.

“Our biggest challenge is an inability to see each other as us — to recognize the value of each one of our children and eliminate barriers to education,” Jealous said. “Incarceration is a major barrier. We’re using incarceration far too frequently. It’s gotten so expensive that it’s sapping our funds and taking money out of state budgets that we should be spending on higher education. Our students are paying for that with higher tuition, higher debt and higher default rates. It gets back to our inability to see each other as us. We know that dollar for dollar, rehabilitation is less expensive than incarceration. If we weren’t incarcerating so many people, we would be wealthier, we would keep more families intact, and we would be less addicted.” !

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