“Dad, why is it always 1963 in Alabama?”
That question has haunted me since my son asked it weeks ago, so I went in search of an answer. But first I revisited 1963, and what a year it was.
A year that stamped Alabama into the psyche of the rest of the nation in too many wrong ways. Though it probably more fitting to say we were pounded, rather than stamped.
In May of that year, black and white television sets across the country watched as NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley broadcast pictures from Birmingham of police dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs turned loose on Civil Rights demonstrations. In June, 43-year-old first-term Governor George Wallace stood at the University of Alabama and declared that the federal government was oppressing the “rights, privileges and sovereignty” of the state.
And on a Sunday morning in September, an explosion ripped through a church in Birmingham and claimed four young girls as its victims.
So surely my son, Kevin, is wrong. Surely we’ve long since turned our back on intolerance. Surely we’ve now rejected those voices that dwell more on our fears than our hopes.
But have we really?
When I see our state senate vote 24-6 for a bill that would declare federal gun control laws null and void in the state if they were in “violation of the Second Amendment,” I again hear the voice of George Wallace. (One Republican senator called this bill “political pandering” but his colleagues paid no attention.)
When I read a press release that falsely accuses education leaders of misspending millions of dollars, I wonder again why children are so often the weapons of choice in a political skirmish.
When I hear Tea Party leaders say that if we adopt Common Core education standards it will be the same as having President Obama as our children’s classroom teacher, I hear ancient voices once again reminding us that someone “ain’t one of our own.”
When I hear our Chief Justice say that instead of spending money on pre-kindergarten programs, we should give it to the court system, I think about all the research he is ignoring about the role early childhood education plays in reducing crime and again wonder why we can’t see the forests for the trees.
But wait; while we may still harbor some of the attitudes of 1963, certainly we’ve come a long way in economic measures such as median family income.
Yes, we have advanced. Fifty years ago we were no. 47 in the nation, now we’re no. 45. However, while Alabama was basically running in place, other southern states were running faster.
For example, Georgia went from no. 43 to no. 37. North Carolina went from no. 45 to no. 38 and South Carolina from no. 48 to no. 44.
And in spite of all the incentives used to lure car plants and their suppliers, we still have five of the 50 poorest counties in the country. Only Mississippi and Kentucky have more than we do.
So what happened? If we could roll back the clock 50 years, what should we do differently?
Instead of worrying about who was going to school, we should have worried about the quality of education they were receiving. Apparently that’s what some other southern states did. For example, if you look at data from 4th grade math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress comparisons, you find that Alabama trails South Carolina by ten places, Georgia by 14 and North Carolina by 36.
And when you look at the top five states in this category, they all rank in the top 10 nationally in median family income. So there appears to be linkage between prosperity and education.
But what have we just done? In probably the most radical piece of education legislation ever passed by the state legislature, one that politician after politician has hailed as the chance to get students out of failing schools, we made sure that the 11,000 kids in failing schools in Birmingham could only go to non-failing schools in neighboring systems if they are invited.
So Kevin, while I pray it is not still 1963 in Alabama, I’m not sure 50 years have passed since it was.
Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education who frequently writes about education issues. You can reach him at email@example.com.