On October 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first African American to enroll in the University of Mississippi. After applying and being denied twice, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed suit in the U.S. District Court, alleging that the university had rejected Meredith only because of the color of his skin, as he had a highly successful record. The case went through many hearings and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Meredith had the right to be admitted to the state school. In a letter, Meredith wrote that he wanted admission for his country, race, family, and himself: “Nobody handpicked me…I believed, and believe now, that I have a Divine Responsibility…I am familiar with the probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way…”
While we lament over the hate, bigotry and injustice that existed, we use these stories as a way to remind ourselves of the victories by way of the courageous and sacrificial acts of so many young Americans like Meredith; Americans who were unsatisfied with the status quo and called into action. They imagined a different way of life and they organized themselves to make a difference. So we celebrate the barriers of racism and injustice that have fallen down since the 1960’s. We celebrate because we see progress, yet we are not satisfied because we know we have a long way to go.
Quality education is something Americans should be proud of—something worth fighting for—but not everyone has access to it. The grave reality is that on average fewer than 69% of African Americans and Hispanic students graduate from high school throughout the country. In our state of Ohio, the grad rate for blacks and Hispanics is worse than the national average: less than two thirds. The struggle starts before high school: kindergarten readiness, 4th grade reading proficiency, and 8th grade math proficiency play a role in a student’s academic success before they even step through the high school doors.
Our education system has changed since 1962. Thanks to the brave actions of young Americans like James Meredith, African Americans and other students of color can freely apply to and enroll in any university throughout the country, but we need them to graduate from high school to get there. So what can we do? If we want to see graduation rates of low-income and minority students change, similar to James Meredith, we must become unsatisfied with the status quo and call ourselves into action. We must imagine teachers, parents, friends and youth organizing themselves to make a difference. We must envision a community of educators that expands outside of the school building and into the streets, a community that sees changing the education success rates of their students as “a divine responsibility.”
Nia Williams graduated from Xavier University with a B.A. in History. Nia currently works at The Strive Partnership, a partnership dedicated to supporting and seeing every child succeed academically from cradle to career. Nia’s favorite thing to do is work with her high school students at Clark Montessori High School as a Track & Field coach.