Arne Duncan remarks at School Without Walls on anniversary of March on Washington

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Arne Duncan remarks at School Without Walls on anniversary of March on Washington

August 27, 2013

Thank you & acknowledgements

Thank you, Hugh [Price]. It's a special honor to be introduced by someone who has been a leader and innovator in improving education and in tearing down the national shame of Jim Crow. I know how personal this anniversary is to you, since you served as a marshal in the March on Washington. It's an absolute privilege to be here with you, and so many other distinguished leaders this morning.

I also want to say to Ambassador [Andrew] Young, Chancellor [Kaya] Henderson, Marc Morial, Bernice King, Reverend [Carolyn] McKinstry, Dr. [Angela Farris] Watkins, and the other distinguished panelists, how much I am looking forward to listening to your conversation and learning from you.

Congratulations to our hosts here—The King Center and Discovery Education—on this event, and to Discovery and the National Urban League on your partnership [an initiative that is focused on helping to bridge the digital divide in our urban communities].

And to the young people here at the School without Walls: I am so hopeful about your collective futures, because I know the commitment of your teachers, and the quality of education you receive here. It's a pleasure to talk with a group of students—this is always the best part of my day! I know you take the legacy of the March seriously—that's why your school has made a priority of community service.

And I'm thrilled that this conversation is being live-streamed to students across the country. This anniversary belongs to everyone, and especially to our young people.

Civil rights takes struggle—and it's on you

As we reflect on today, it's important first to remember that the March on Washington almost didn't happen. Like every other civil rights victory, it took struggle.

And that struggle isn't over.

Yes, there's been progress—extraordinary progress. But, we all know, we've got a lot further to go.

In today's world, freedom means having real opportunities—the kinds of opportunities that come only with a great education. The opportunity to find work that will enable you to support yourself, and your family. The opportunity to make decisions about your future. The opportunity to participate fully in our democracy.

It's going to take a lot of work before every young person has that kind of opportunity.

Looking back at the March on Washington

Getting there will require you—the young people in this audience—to join a struggle that began long before you were born.

Let's start by taking a look back at the March on Washington.

When that march was in the planning stages, powerful people wanted to stop it. Not everyone believed that people of different races would come together peacefully on a hot summer day. Some said the march would interrupt progress. President Kennedy actually urged the organizers to cancel it.

Several earlier marches had been planned, and canceled.

But this time, the organizers wouldn't take no for an answer.

And so, hundreds of thousands of Americans of all races marched on this city. They packed the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. It was powerful. Peaceful. And impossible to ignore. It forced a change in the arc of history.

One of my heroes, John Lewis—the only major speaker who's still alive today—is going to be here later today. He often talks about how proud President Kennedy was when he congratulated the leaders at the White House. Yes, President Kennedy had opposed the march—but he was thrilled with what it had achieved.

What had the marchers achieved?

Think of it this way.

Tomorrow, just like fifty years ago, an African-American man will stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and speak about civil rights and justice.

But afterwards, he won't visit the White House. He'll go home to the White House.

That's how far this country has come.

A black president is a victory that few could have imagined fifty years ago.

America's progress in civil rights cannot be denied.

But in some really important ways, we have a lot further to go.

Education is the civil rights issue of our time

I've often said that education is the civil rights issue of our time. I'm not the first to say it.

But what does that mean?

Civil rights is more than just the absence of chains. It's more than the power to vote. Civil rights means having the same opportunities that other people do—regardless of what you look like, where you come from, or whom you love.

And in today's world, to have real opportunity, you must have a world-class education.

If you can ride at the front of the bus, but you cannot read, you are not free.

If your schooling limits you to poverty wages, you're not free.

If you don't have the skills to make it in a global, knowledge-based economy, you're not—truly—free.

Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, wrote recently that America has come a long way—but said, "Our public education system... is failing to prepare huge numbers our children for the future. That threatens the dream for all of us."

In the 1950s and 60s, the fight for educational equality was mostly about segregation. Jim Crow segregation is no longer the law of any state—and that we can celebrate.

Supporters of integration no longer face police officers with dogs and fire hoses and billy clubs. You no longer need the National Guard to accompany you when you try to enroll in college.

But integration alone doesn't guarantee a world-class education.

Even for many minority students with the finest education, discrimination is still alive.

And the truth is that a good education means something different now. When Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis marched, a high school diploma was enough for a solid job in a steel mill or a factory. And that meant you could afford a car, a house, a comfortable life for your family.

Today, there are almost no jobs like that for a high school graduate.

Today, to have a path to the middle class, you're probably going to need a college degree, or at least an advanced certificate after high school.

That's why President Obama has said we need to be first in the world in college graduation again. Today, jobs go where the best-educated workers are—anywhere in the world. We want—and we need—those high wage, high skills jobs to stay right here. America used to lead the world in college graduates. We're 12th among our young adults. That is nothing to be proud of.

And too many of our young people left on the sidelines are black, brown, and poor.

That's not what John Lewis and Martin Luther King were marching for.


Now, we are making some important progress. High school graduation rates are higher than they have been in almost 30 years. College enrollment is way up, too. A lot of that is because African-American and Hispanic young people are graduating from high school and attending college at much higher rates. That's huge.

The black-white achievement gap in reading has narrowed by about half since 1971.

We've turned around some of the worst high schools in the country—dropout factories that were killing the futures of young people. Ten years ago, half of African-American high school students and 39 percent of Hispanic students attended dropout factories.

We've cut those proportions in half. There are 700,000 fewer students in those failing schools now than there were just four years ago. That's 700,000 students with a better chance at a middle class life, of supporting their family, and strengthening their community.

But we have so much further to go.

Today, African-American students are more than three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled.

Today, we are a country of hidden segregation. In a lot of places, kids of different races and different wealth may go to school in the same building. But when you look at the actual classes they take, and the quality of their education, they're going to totally different schools.

Today, a small set of failing schools still accounts for about half of all African-American and Hispanic dropouts.

Today, low-income children of color don't get their share of the best teachers.

Today, poverty still matters—too much. In a land of opportunity, kids should get a world-class education, even if their parents didn't, and regardless of how much money their family makes.

Simply put, we're not there yet.

I know full well the challenges that come from living in tough neighborhoods. All of that makes the important work of educators harder. But we can't accept where we stand.

Today, a child from a rich family is seven times more likely to complete college than a child from a low-income family.

As a result, too often, the rich get richer, and the poor stay poor. If you want to increase social mobility, you must increase educational opportunity. There are no shortcuts.


But today, too many communities still shortchange their children by failing to pay the bill for a decent education. In 1967, Dr. King wrote: "The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized."

Forty-five years later, from North Carolina—where today underpaid teachers go on public assistance—to Philadelphia—where lack of investment leads directly to inferior education—Dr. King's message still hasn't been heard. Our children, and our country, deserve so much more.


And, perhaps worst of all, the most fundamental civil right—safety from violence—remains in doubt for too many children.

Children should be safe, whether they're in their neighborhood, or at school, or stopping by the store to get Skittles and an iced tea.

Yet today, too many young people live in fear of violence—especially gun violence. From the time I was a child, I saw firsthand the cost of that violence in Chicago. It's horrifying.

I want to tell you about Christina Waters. She was a student at a small neighborhood public school I helped to start, called Ariel Community Academy. After I left Chicago and moved to DC, I thought I would next see Christina at her college graduation, but instead I visited her in her hospital room in 2009.

She'd been at a church activity on a summer evening when someone started spraying bullets, and she was shot in the head. Emergency workers had to look up "Mom" in her phone to notify her family. Her friend, who was standing next to her, was killed, but Christina survived and recovered. She is as tough, as resilient, as they get.

Tomorrow, Christina starts her junior year at Sam Houston State University in Texas, and I'm so thankful and so proud of her. But we came so close to losing this young woman—the way we do so many of our precious young people.

At a middle school I visited here in DC, I asked a group of students whether they knew anyone who had been shot. Every hand—every hand—went up. One student said hauntingly, "I see bullets everywhere." Several had family members who had been killed.

Homicide is the leading cause of death for young black males in this country—bigger than the next nine leading causes combined.

I believe our nation tolerates this staggering level of violence because it happens in poor neighborhoods of color. The causes—joblessness, hopelessness, easy access to guns, fatherless families, black on black crime, lack of mentors, lack of investment, inferior education—still sometimes seem too complex and painful for our country to grapple with honestly.

Safety is a child's most fundamental civil right.

It's hard to learn when you're afraid for your life. It's hard to plan for the future if your thinking is, "if I grow up," not "when I grow up."

We have so much further to go.

We have to stand up together.

And your time—your time—as leaders has come.

Speak out

Dr. King said: "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."

No civil rights victory was ever handed to anyone.

And now, the struggle will be led by you.

The most powerful force in the world is nonviolent struggle. But you can't just wait for it to happen.

You have to speak out.

As a student, John Lewis, the civil rights hero, didn't just participate—he helped to lead the March on Washington. He's now a member of Congress, and he was back at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, to speak to people celebrating the anniversary of the March. Here's what he said:

"You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out."

Speak out.

You can speak out with your voice.

You can speak out with positive actions.

You can speak out through getting involved and being a leader.

And soon, you'll be able to speak out by voting. People died to give you that power. Today, too many individuals choose not to vote, and too many states work to restrict access. Please, demand the right to vote, and be a leader and role model by exercising that right.

The rights of young people

Speak out for the kind of education that every child needs so they'll have real opportunities in their lives.

What should every young person in America have a right to experience as part of a normal childhood?

  • Preschool that provides a strong start.
  • Skilled, caring teachers.
  • Experiences that teach patience and hard work.
  • Safety.
  • Leadership opportunities.
  • Role models to learn from.
  • A school that serves them and their families.
  • Exposure to the world of work.
  • An opportunity to prepare for college—and the ability to afford it.

It's not complicated.

It's not asking for too much.

But don't wait for anybody to hand it to you.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were here today, he would remind all of us of the fierce urgency of now and the need to press for real progress—not over decades but over days and months and years.

He would tell us that ignorance is a form of mental slavery every bit as oppressive as the physical slavery that stained America's history.

So when you see schools that don't give kids real opportunities, don't wait for change. Speak out.

When politicians discount education funding, speak out.

When communities don't keep their young people safe, speak out.

James Farmer, another leader of the March, dedicated himself to the fight against discrimination at the age of 10.

Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott when he was all of 26.

John Lewis was 23 when stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke to a quarter-million people 50 years ago.

Honor the memory of the March on Washington. Honor the struggle of the people who fought to get this far.

Honor their sacrifice not just through reflection, but through action.

Don't wait for change.

Stand up.

Speak out.

Thank you.