Education as a constitutional right?

Bob Moses, the civil rights leader of the 1960s, is in town and I had the privilege of participating in an informal evening with him and about 30 others at the home of a friend in North Oakland.  The event was billed as a fundraiser for Ron Bridgeforth — more about that later — but Moses proposed what seemed at first a very different agenda.  He asked whether it was emotionally possible in this country to have a conversation about whether the federal constitution should recognize the right of every child to a quality education.

Moses pointed out that the original constitution recognized only white male  property owners as constituents, and that forced immigrants from Africa and their descendants were property.  During the 19th century, slave plantations were largely converted to sharecropping, but

Bob Moses, Diane Benton at fundraiser for Ron Bridgeforth

many barriers against educating the former slaves remained in place.  In Mississippi in 1875, for example, the budget to establish public schools to teach the children of sharecroppers, passed by a Reconstruction government, was abolished and diverted to building railroads for the plantations.  Sharecropper children should have only the education that sharecroppers needed.  That “as needed” rule for education has not gone away, but the economy has changed.  Today, the labor market needs people with higher literacy, and in particular literacy in mathematics for the information industry.  Here, Bob put in a plug for the Algebra Project that he has headed for the past 25 years, but his concern is wider: to gain recognition of quality education as a constitutional right.

Bob spoke eloquently and learnedly about the historical interplay between the right to vote and education, but kept his remarks short, as is his style.  His aim was to start up a conversation in the room.  That happened to some extent, as people began to unpack some of their pent-up frustrations about race and class in education, and it became evident why Bob had framed the question in terms of emotional readiness.  Soon the room quieted, and we heard from the next speaker, Diane Benton, who was there to speak about her life with her husband, Ron Bridgeforth.

Ron Bridgeforth was a young African-American civil rights militant who, in 1968, was caught up in a confrontation with police where he fired a weapon.  He didn’t hit anyone but was arrested on felony assault charges.  He jumped bail, changed his name to Cole Jordan, and started a new life in Ann Arbor.  He completed college, became an educator and counselor, got married, and became a valued member of the community and a mentor to young people.  Last year he decided to turn himself in.  He and Diane returned to California and reported to police.  In March this year he was sentenced to a year in county jail, three years probation, 300 hours of community service, and a fine of $8,500.  He will be out of jail in November, and the court has assigned him to do his community service with juvenile offenders in the Alameda County Probation Department.  (The S.F. Chronicle story is here; Google “Ronald Bridgeforth” to find out more.)  Diane taught English and African-American history in Ann Arbor.  The couple intend to settle and work in Oakland or nearby.  The fundraiser was to help pay off his fine and court costs.

It was a moving experience to see Bob Moses again.  I first met him on Election Eve in 1964, when my then-wife Viki Ortiz and I arrived at the office of COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) on Lynch Street in Jackson, MS.  I wrote about that elsewhere on this website.  Like a number of other political leaders from the civil rights and anti-war era, he has gone on to do groundbreaking work in areas that at first sight seem unrelated, but on closer examination turn out to be at heart the same struggle.

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