Last week I was getting ready for school when I heard the breaking news of Coretta Scott King's death. I was immediately saddened by her departure from this world. I never met Mrs. King, but I felt as though I knew her. I grew up in Alabama, her home state, during the Civil Rights Era, attending the Birmingham City public schools from grades 1-12. It was a very confusing time for me.
I recall the many times my mother and I would ride the bus to shop in downtown Birmingham. In those days, going shopping was quite an occasion—we put on our best dresses, white gloves, and my mother always wore a Sunday hat. I distinctly remember asking my mother why we could not sit in the back of the bus. I thought the long leather seat at the back looked like the best place to be. I can never recall her answer to me, but I think perhaps she told me after we got off the bus that black people sat in the back. I did not understand this at all.
As a young teenager, my best friend and I would ride the bus every Wednesday during the summer to go to the Shopper's Matinee at the Alabama Theater. By then, the white gloves were gone and there were no restrictions on where anyone sat on the bus. But I was really an adult before I understood the sacrifices of Rosa Parks and others who persevered during the Montgomery Bus Boycott to make this a reality.
Today, I wish I could say the racism and classism the Kings so fervently opposed has disappeared from Alabama and our nation. But I still see it every day as I look into the eyes of Brighton's children. There is still a great stigma attached to being a poor child of color.
You may recall that Brighton School is a K-8 school, housed in two buildings separated by several hundred yards. For years, students in our small middle school have not had a designated feeder pattern to a high school but instead choose from one of two high schools in our area. Other students who attend these schools start together in middle school and then go to their feeder high school together. Our students are scattered, and their transition to these large high schools is bound to be traumatic, after spending their middle school years in small classes with as few as 10 students, all on one hall.
In addition, our students do not have the extra-curricular activities offered in our other middle schools—nor the accelerated academic classes. Our eighth grade students have historically been older than average. Currently, almost half of of our 45 students in eighth grade are overage, due to retention.
Simply put, we are producing drop-outs. Who can blame the students for giving up when they enter high school? They are immediately identified as "the Brighton kids," who come from the school with the low test scores. Their high school support systems are weak, at best. What are the odds that they will graduate?
So long as our system continues to isolate these children in a small, under-supported facility, hidden away in one of the county's most impoverished areas, this isn't going to change. These kids and their families don't have much clout, and you really have to wonder how much different their lives are today than the lives of their parents and grandparents 50 years ago.
This is the most blatant discrimination I have ever seen first hand. And we are living in 2006, not 1966. I am sorry, Coretta Scott King. We have not yet realized the Dream. Most importantly, I apologize to all "the Brighton kids" across our state and our nation who have been failed by public education.