In 1969, the Memphis City Schools’ Board and top-level administration had no African American members even though the district had a slight majority of African American students. This was just a year after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and less than 5 years before attempts to desegregate the schools would turn the school system from a slight majority to overwhelmingly African American. Memphis NAACP took on this battle to gain representation on the school board through school boycotts and marches.
Local NAACP leaders challenged a group of young, black men called the Mobilizers to go out and organize students in the schools to walk out of school every Monday to put economic pressure on the school system. My father was one of those young, black men, serving as chairman of the Mobilizers. They took up the charge, driven by a mix that was a sign of the times: equal parts civil rights struggle and Black Power Movement.
At their height, Black Mondays, as they would come to be called, saw 68,000 students and close to 800 teachers stand up for their community by staying home from school. The school board agreed to appoint two (non-voting) African Americans to the board, and shortly thereafter state law would allow for actual representation on the board. Those African American school board members would be instrumental in appointing the first African American superintendent (also the only principal who supported Black Mondays), who would go on to be the first elected black mayor of Memphis.
You won’t read about my father, Cardell Jackson, and his compatriots who did the organizing in most history books. The role they played is all but forgotten except by those few school board members and NAACP leaders who are still with us. These are the forgotten tales of black history, long and interconnected threads that you can’t see at the time and maybe not for years in the future. These are the elements of change and unintended consequences that lead to the historical milestones we eventually read about.
And these are the reasons that I am so appreciative of our Stand leaders and members. They recognize the long road towards systemic change that leads to every child benefitting from a quality education and having the opportunities each and every one of them deserves.
The policies we advocate for tomorrow will not be labelled with our names, but they will bear our fingerprints. Your watchful eye of accountability to make sure that policy is implemented well may not be documented in the final tale. The school board members we elect will be the ones remembered for their bold and brave stands for children. Yet, these things don’t happen without individuals -- like you -- joined together within groups like Stand for Children. The unknown soldiers are the latticework for change.
Now, my father didn’t go on to be a “model” citizen. Growing up as a young, black man in Memphis’ Orange Mound [the first African American neighborhood in the U.S. built by African Americans], my father’s prospects were limited by the bounds of systemic racism. I lost him from much of my life as he struggled with drug addiction and imprisonment, where he led efforts for prisoners to return as positive citizens. He didn’t benefit from the equity and representation that he helped to put in place, but I did. I don’t know if he would have described himself as a black education champion, but I know that Maxine Smith, one of those first African American school board members and a Memphis NAACP leader, did.
As we move into February - Black History Month - we get to reflect on the impact of people of the African diaspora on the history of the United States and the world. I encourage you to think about the people between the lines of the history books. In that context, think about yourself, the people in your school, your Stand chapter, and your broader community. We all can find our own part to play in the larger effort to build greater equity in access to quality schools for all children. Whether in the moment or over a lifetime, each step moves us closer to the outcome we all desire and need.