By John Nordquist
Education “is the civil rights issue of this century,” John McCain said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. "Equal access to public education has been gained, but what is the value of access to a failing school? We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice. Let’s remove barriers [...]"
This one statement is perhaps the most impacting and revealing than any other in defining where our country is and what has been accomplished in 232 years. It didn't matter that it came from McCain's mouth. It could very well have come from Obama, or George Bush, or anyone else and still accurately depict how far we have come and what struggle lie ahead of us as a nation.
The 19th Century struggle was to define America as a nation, to expand our borders, and to stake our claims. In the process, millions of our people were enslaved, millions died in genocidal death camps (reservations), and millions died in civil war as we tried to set the course of civil rights straight.
The 20th Century, coming of age with a 100 year old constitution, matured and tested, struggled to ensure that all people and all races were included and segregated.protected and not just the white male dominant majority population. Though our national creed included near holy mantras like "all men are created equal" and "e pluribus unum (out of many, one)," the shameful reality was an America with no equality among races and genders at all. Constitutionally, racism was illegal at the federal level, but state and local governments, as well as institutions like schools, hospitals, even churches, remained racially segregated. African-American's may have been freed from slavery in the 1860's, but in the 1960's they were still segregated from an affluent white America and excluded from the political process.
The idealism of the founding fathers that created a union of free peoples could not carry the hearts and minds of a racially diverse population. Jews could not be members in most country clubs. Indians died off on shrinking reservations. Blacks were denied education in public schools segregated in all facets of society.
In the 1950's, the great civil rights struggle went national, with President Eisenhower committing federal troops to force states to comply with equality law. By the 1960's, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired the mass movement to ensure that all racial barriers were removed from society, and over the next 40 years, government, business, media, and education moved with it.
Racism is not eradicated. Race is still a factor in many different facets of life. Disparities in income and education, crime statistics, and job opportunity are still evident, yet with each new generation of American born, equality is more a reality.
As we move into the 21st Century, we do so knowing that discrimination based on race, religion, gender, national origin, and any other designations that define our diversity, shall not be tolerated, and in fact, intentionally violating the civil rights of another based upon any of the above will result in criminal liability.
If anyone doubts that the great American struggle for civil rights has been won, they need to explain how Barack Obama, a racially mixed American, could stand at this moment just a breath away from becoming the leader of all Americans, capturing the hearts and hopes of half of the country and the respect of the rest.
Defining education of our children as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century is the quiet declaration of peace and victory in the struggle for equality of the 20th century.
In 1965 there were probably only a handful of Americans, perhaps idealistic followers of the Rev. Dr. Marin Luther King, who could look to the future and see an America where a black man could be nominated by a rulng party to be their candidate for President.