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The Prince Edward County Free School: 50 Years Later, a Model for the Fight for Education Equality

05/23/2014 11:20 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2014

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that declared Prince Edward County's district-wide school closures unconstitutional.

When a January 1959 court ruling ordered the state of Virginia to integrate its school system, Prince Edward County officials responded by closing down every public school in the county. Overnight, brand new private schools sprang up for white children, and the black children were out of luck. Outraged by the racist hatred of government officials, Robert F. Kennedy, upon becoming Attorney General in 1961, sued Prince Edward County to reopen its schools.

My grandfather understood the importance of changing the law. But when it came to education, he recognized that children grow fast, lawsuits take time, and that the students of Prince Edward Country couldn't afford to wait for the case to wend its way through court. So he brought together the best teachers from across the country and formed the Prince Edward County Free School. The exceptional institution opened up a new frontier in the civil rights movement.

I never met my grandpa. But through that story, he taught me that we each have a duty to fight injustice when we see it today, even when we know that the root of the problem will take years to correct.

Two years ago, when I was a freshman in high school, I joined the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights on a delegation to several of the 700 indigenous, impoverished communities in the mountains of Guerrero, Mexico where we joined our partners at the Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights and investigated the denial of the right to education. High in the Sierra Madres, we came upon the village of Buena Vista, where I met dozens of adorable, wide-eyed, big-hearted children. I laid one little girl down to nap on her bedroom floor, which meant the dust and dirt of the earth. I couldn't fathom how tired she and her schoolmates, five, six and seven years old, must be after walking two hours each day down the mountain, and then two hours back up the mountain in order to go to school. I chased them around, tickling them and when I finally caught up, I heard their laughter. I thought about how much school must represent for them, considering that they walk that distance each day when the teacher only shows up to work a random three or four of the mandated five days per week. I learned so much of the endearing personality of each child through hand signals and smiles since they speak an indigenous language I haven't learned. But I could not imagine how hard it must be for them to learn from their teacher, who does not speak their language and is herself barely literate. The children were so full of life and love, and dedicated to progressing through education.

For these kids, education means a chance at a life that is not 14 hours a day of backbreaking labor, risking lives to leave families and toil as migrant laborers across the treacherous border; it means hope for a better future.

My grandpa didn't stand idle when African-American children were denied an education; he took immediate action, even as he was laying the groundwork for permanent change. Hearing the story of Grandpa's monumental impact fighting discrimination, I knew I wanted to live by his example. He stood up against racists, he built a school, he granted the wishes of children eager to learn, and so would I.

Like African-American children in my grandpa's time, the children I met in indigenous Mexico are denied the right to education. Today, I appreciate the lawsuit that Tlachinollan is bringing and the RFK Center is supporting, which will hopefully extend education access rights to Buena Vista and make it so schools are available for everyone, including indigenous children. But in the meantime, we cannot wait for the lawsuit to play out while children grow up without an education.

Today we continue Robert Kennedy's quest for justice. We built a school in Buena Vista, another in a neighboring community, and are in the midst of raising funds for a third.

Grandpa taught me to respect authority, but to disobey injustice. Alec Baldwin, Natasha Bedingfield, Ed Begley, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne, Tim Cook, Tim Daly, Trevor Donovan, Shepard Fairey, Mia Farrow, Peter Frampton, Marcia Gay Harden, Cheryl Hines, Ethel Kennedy, Kerry Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Jr., George Lopez, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lyle Lovett, Chad Lowe, Diane Neal, Jerry Springer, Alfre Woodard, and many more are supporting building schools in Mexico through our t-shirt fundraiser to "DISOBEY injustice in all its forms." By spreading the word, and getting people to visit www.rfkmexico.com in just the past few weeks we have raised nearly $5,000.

From the young girls in Nigeria who showed up to take a test even under threat of attack by Boko Haram extremists, to Malala Yousafzai advocating for the right to education even after the Taliban tried to silence her with a bullet, the global movement for education equality is stronger than ever.

I believe the lawsuit Tlachinollan filed will create real and lasting change for the children of Guerrero. But in the meantime, I am honored to be part of making sure that movement reaches even the highest mountains of Mexico. Each new brick in the schoolhouses we are building represents a child who will have a space to learn, and they in turn will join Malala and the students of Nigeria and places around the world as education rights activists themselves. They will be part of the phenomenon my grandpa described to the students of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1966:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.