Crossing the Next Bridge: Secretary Arne Duncan’s Remarks on the 45th Anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

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It is a great honor—and a sobering one—to speak at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Here, 45 years ago, a recalcitrant state and governor slowly, begrudgingly, were forced to make due on the American promise of equal opportunity. A nation wept with shame when state troopers savagely beat John Lewis and several hundred peaceful protesters with clubs, lashed them with bullwhips, and stung their eyes and throats with tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge—all because they wanted to secure the right to vote.

Those troopers fractured John Lewis's skull on Bloody Sunday. But they didn't fracture the civil rights movement, or the indomitable spirit of John Lewis—an American hero and now a congressman. Within months of Bloody Sunday, the U.S. Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congressman Artur Davis, who I'm pleased has joined us today, is one of the thousands of black legislators in the South who are the offspring of Bloody Sunday.

Now, you all know the story of Bloody Sunday. But stop and ask yourselves, why does Bloody Sunday resonate so powerfully 45 years later? I'll tell you what I think. Bloody Sunday is not just a story of courage, of standing up for justice, of making America live up to its better self. It is also a story of something else—a reminder of dreams yet to be fulfilled, of bridges yet to cross.

For 45 years, lawmakers, governors, civil rights leaders, presidential candidates, and presidents have made the pilgrimage to Edmund Pettus Bridge. Without fail, they have said two things. First, they have marveled at the distance that the nation has come. A decade ago, at the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, John Lewis once again faced state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But this time the troopers included women and African Americans—and the troopers saluted him.

Yet for all that unquestionable progress, no one can testify to what happened here without being reminded that the dream of equal opportunity in America has yet to be realized. As a nation, we are still a long way from reaching Martin Luther King's dream.

In January, I was at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. King's church, to commemorate what would have been Martin Luther King's 81st birthday. Had Dr. King been there, he would have been thrilled to see that America had elected its first African-American president. He would have been heartened by the decades-long dismantling of Jim Crow. But I think Dr. King would have been disheartened to see that, 56 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, many schools are still effectively segregated in America.

Just a few miles from his church sat a high school where 94 percent of the students were black. He would have been disappointed to learn that less than 10 percent of the freshmen in the 2007-08 class at the University of Georgia were Latino, African American, or Native American—and that this inequality in educational access occurred in a state where minority students accounted for nearly 40 percent of Georgia's 2007 high school graduates.

Dr. King would have been angered to see that we all too often under-invest in disadvantaged students; that they still have fewer opportunities to take rigorous college-prep courses in high school; that too many black, and brown, and low-income children are still languishing in aging facilities and high schools that are little more than dropout factories. He would have been downhearted that students with disabilities still do not get the educational support they need—and he would have been dismayed to learn of schools that seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys.

Now, there is a reason, as President Obama has said, that "the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools. There's a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There's a reason why the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob." As the President points out, the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools because "there is no stronger weapon against, and no better path to opportunity, than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential."

Few civil rights are as central to the cause of human freedom as equal educational opportunity. Just over 60 years ago, W.E.B. DuBois observed that "of the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental."

In today's information age, education has become all the more fundamental. Today, you can no longer drop out of school and land a job that pays a living wage. As the President said in his State of the Union, "in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential."

Our commitment to equity and equal opportunity runs like a ribbon through all of our initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education—from ensuring that low-income minority students aren't stuck in chronically under-performing schools, to working with districts to get great teachers in the schools and subjects where they are needed most, to targeting billions of dollars to students and schools in need of support.

The Office for Civil Rights in our department also plays a critical role in ensuring equity. It enforces laws that protect students from discrimination on the basis of sex, race, national origin, and disability status. It oversees Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by race, color, or national origin in public schools and in institutions of higher education that receive federal funds.

The Office for Civil Rights is a big office in the department, with just over 600 employees. And it's an office with weighty responsibilities. It issues policy guidance, launches compliance reviews, provides technical assistance—and it can ultimately withhold federal funds in extreme cases to schools and districts that refuse to remedy discrimination.

In the 46 years since Title VI was enacted, access to quality academic programs has increased tremendously among minority students, students with disabilities, and students who are English language learners. But it is also true that the civil rights struggle has grown more complex since the days of Selma.

This evolution of the civil rights challenge forces us to ask a basic question, and it is this: What is freedom? Freedom, it turns out, is not only the right to sit in the front of the bus, or cast a ballot. It's not even just the opportunity to purchase a home without fear of discrimination, as essential as that is.

No, freedom is all these things but so much more. Freedom is also the ability to think on your own and to pursue your own path as far as your gifts can take you—and only education can give you that freedom, can open those doors. If you cannot read, you are not truly free.

So when I look at the cause of equal educational opportunity in 2010, I ask: How do we maximize freedom and opportunity in schools and communities where low-income black and brown children, and students with disabilities, still are treated unequally?

The answer, in part, is to remember the mission of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. When President

John F. Kennedy first introduced the legislation that would become Title VI, he said that "simple justice requires that public funds… not be spent in any fashion which encourages, subsidizes, or results in racial discrimination."

Let me repeat that. President Kennedy said that no taxpayer dollars should be spent if they subsidize or result in racial discrimination. "Indirect discrimination," Kennedy said at the time, was "just as invidious" as direct discrimination.

Now, President Kennedy's tests for equal educational opportunity still stand the test of time, even as they have been modified by court decisions and public policies. We still need to challenge policies which subsidize or needlessly result in grossly disparate impacts for children of color.

In his campaign speech on race in Philadelphia, Barack Obama also reminded Americans that many of the disparities that exist today in the black community have deep roots in inequalities in earlier generations that stemmed from the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. "Segregated schools," he said, "were, and are, inferior schools. We still haven't fixed them 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education—and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students."

So, yes, justice is blind. But it is not blind to injustice. I have been on a listening and learning tour since I took office, as has my extraordinary Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Russlynn Ali. And we have found that educators and parents are not only aware of the next bridge to cross in the struggle for equal educational opportunity, they are ready to make that journey, with our help and support. Everywhere we go, people want to know how we can best help children. We often get asked:

  • How can we better integrate our schools, promote a healthy diversity, and reduce racial isolation?
  • How can we promote equity, both in terms of the distribution of resources and high-quality teachers?
  • How can we better manage disciplinary issues?
  • And how can we assure that low-income Latino and African American students get the same access to a college-prep curriculum, AP classes, and college as other students?

We welcome this growing awareness around the country that the struggle for equal opportunity is not at an end. These revitalized concerns are driven by the recognition that policies which stunt healthy diversity are bad for children and at odds with the American Dream. As the Supreme Court has said, "attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of [a university's] proper institutional mission."

My own experience taught me the same lesson. From the time I was born, I, my sister, and my brother, spent every afternoon of our childhood and teen years in my mother's after-school tutoring program in Chicago. When I was young, the older students tutored me. As I grew older, I tutored the younger students. After we finished studying, we played basketball together.

Except for my brother, sister, and me, all of her students were African American—and many of them made great sacrifices just to attend my mother's program. But our lives were inalterably changed for the better by having grown up in that program. Forty-nine years later, my mother is still going strong—and in our own ways we have all tried to build upon the legacy of her commitment.

I am a big believer in the importance of diversity because I experienced its impact and power firsthand. I learned in my mother's after-school program that poverty does not have to be destiny, and that tolerance is more powerful than intolerance.

I have no patience for the students at a University of California campus who recently held an off-campus "cookout" to mock Black History Month, and invited guests to don gold teeth in the style of rappers, eat watermelon, and dress in baggy athletic wear. A few days later, a female student hung a noose from a bookcase in the main library. Just last week, a KKK-style hood was draped on a statue on that campus. Fortunately, those incidents of racial intolerance are comparatively rare today. But I believe the fact that just two percent of the students on that campus were African American helped fuel the bigotry there.

The hard truth is that, in the last decade, the Office for Civil Rights has not been as vigilant as it should have been in combating gender and racial discrimination and protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. But that is about to change. As President Obama said when he spoke here at the 2007 commemoration of Bloody Sunday, "we still have a lot of work to do in the basic enforcement of anti-discrimination laws."

Over the next year, our civil rights office will be undertaking that work in communities and schools across America. We are going to reinvigorate civil rights enforcement. With a strict adherence to statutory and case law, and working with schools and post-secondary institutions, we are going to strive to make Dr. King's dream of a colorblind society a reality.

In coming weeks and months, we will be issuing a series of guidance letters to school districts and postsecondary institutions that will address issues of fairness and equity. We will be announcing a number of compliance reviews to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities, including a college-prep curriculum, advanced courses, and STEM classes.

We will review whether districts and schools are disciplining students without regard to skin color. We will collect and monitor data on equity. And we will provide technical assistance, so schools and colleges know their responsibilities—and we will reach out to parents and students, so they know their rights, too. We will enforce laws and work with schools and institutions of higher education to insure that all children, no matter what their race, gender, disability, or ELL status, have a fair chance at a good future.

Civil rights laws require vigorous enforcement not just because they are the law of the land but because the data paint a stark picture of educational inequality. Among high school graduates, white students are about six times more likely to be college-ready in biology than African-American students, and more than four times as likely to be college-ready in Algebra. White high school graduates are also more than twice as likely to have taken AP calculus classes as black or Latino high school graduates.

These glaring inequities are even worse once you look at the population of all students, and not just those that stay in school. We're losing more than a quarter of all students before graduation day—and in many urban communities, half or more of students of color are dropping out of school. Just 12 percent of our high schools, or 2,000 high schools, produce half of the dropouts in the country, and three-fourths of dropouts among African-American and Latino students. This is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable.

Deep disparities in discipline are just as pronounced. African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely to be expelled as their white peers. African-American students with disabilities are over twice as likely to be expelled or suspended as their white counterparts. Those facts testify to racial gaps that are hard to explain away by reference to the usual suspects.

We know, too, that in high school dropout factories, students of color are often cheated out of getting highly effective teachers. A recent investigation by the Denver Post documented that three-fourths of the unassigned teachers in the school district—that is, teachers who had been let go but couldn't find a teaching job elsewhere—were placed in high-poverty schools over the last four years. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we must first close the opportunity gap.

The door to college still does not swing open evenly for everyone, and disparities in college access are actually worsening. Students from low-income families who score in the top testing quartile are no more likely than their lowest-scoring peers in the wealthiest quartile to attend college. And during the past two decades, the gaps in college participation by ethnic groups have grown wider, rather than shrinking.

Using all the appropriate tools at our disposal, we are going to move forward to address inequities in educational opportunity. Civil rights enforcement is sometimes portrayed as a partisan issue. But the history of civil rights enforcement in education is more unexpected and bipartisan than one might think.

The education historian Gareth Davies has pointed out that it was during the Nixon-Ford years that Title VI expanded to prohibit discrimination against women, students with disabilities, and students acquiring the English language.

I am going to ask you to guess which national leader said the following at the 25th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. I quote: "The hard lesson of the passing years is that it has not been enough to wage a war against the old forms of bigotry and inequality… It is time now to move forward on a broader front, to move forward into the century's final decade with a civil rights mission that fully embraces every deserving American, regardless of race—whether women, children or the aged, whether disabled, unemployed, or the homeless."

If you guessed the Rev. Jesse Jackson, that would have been a good guess. But, in fact, that was President George Herbert Walker Bush—echoing a call to action that rings familiar today.

In the time since President Bush spoke those words, the national mission to provide equal opportunity has become even more urgent. The educational inequities of today are going to translate into the economic obsolescence of tomorrow. By 2016, just six years from now, four out of every ten new jobs will require some advanced education or training. In a global economy, an inferior education is a ticket to competitive irrelevance.

We must recognize that America's achievement gap hurts not just the children who are cheated of a quality education but the nation itself. Last year, McKinsey & Company released an analysis that concluded the nation's achievement gaps have imposed "the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession" on America.

That is one reason why I absolutely reject the argument that securing equal access for black and brown children is a zero sum game that pits their interests against those of other children. America needs the abilities and talents of all its children to succeed and thrive. If we help our children, we strengthen our nation.

Now, skeptics sometimes tell me "slow down." They say our agenda to pursue equal opportunity is too ambitious. To them, I simply repeat what Martin Luther King said many years ago: "We can't wait." I repeat what President Lyndon Johnson said after Bloody Sunday, when he told a joint session of Congress: "We have already waited a hundred years and more—and the time for waiting is gone."

The achievement gap in our country is shameful. Fifty-six years after Brown v. Board of Education, 45 years after Bloody Sunday, the achievement gap is still a cancer that imperils our nation's progress. America's school children cannot wait six years, or eight years, or 10 years, for pervasive educational inequities to disappear. Your children, my children, our children, the students gathered here today, have only one chance—one chance—for an education.

More than a century ago, Booker T. Washington walked 500 miles to the Hampton Institute to receive an education. The force that drove Booker T. to make that long walk is known to everyone here today: In America, education is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter what your race, wealth, special needs, or zip code is—every child is entitled to a quality education.

That's why the fight for equal educational opportunity is about so much more than education—it is a fight for social justice.

We intend to make real that dream of equal educational opportunity that Martin Luther King glimpsed from the mountaintop. We intend to march on, on toward the dream of a colorblind society. We cannot wait. And with your help, your commitment, and your courage, we will all cross the bridge that leads to true equality. Our children, and our nation, deserve no less.