'We Wanted to Pray for Better Schools'

Even the young people in the civil rights era were asking questions: "What does democracy mean? What do I have to do?" This was a hard, profound emotional and intellectual challenge. "How do I reach out to people who don't even acknowledge that I exist or should have the right to vote?"
--Taylor Branch, biographer of the civil rights movement
Meet the Press' Press Pass, August 25, 2013

Hearing Taylor Branch reminisce about the 1963 March on Washington on its 50th anniversary this week made me think of a recent talk I heard by Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III.

Hrabowski was one of those young people in the civil rights era to whom Branch was referring. Today president of University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Hrabowski grew up in what he calls "The Deep South. The DEEP South."

He means Birmingham, Ala., which in the early 1960s became known as Bombingham because of the continual threat of bombings of homes and churches. The most horrifying of those bombings, of course, was the church explosion that killed four little girls. That church was the one Hrabowski's family attended, and those four little girls were Sunday school friends of his.

A month ago I was lucky enough to hear Hrabowski speak at a school administrators' conference in Iowa. (Full disclosure: I consider myself the head of the Freeman Hrabowski Fan Club, though I know lots of other people vie for that title.)

Hrabowski told the Iowa audience how, in the spring of 1963 -- six months before the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church -- his parents had dragged him to a talk by a young preacher. The only reason he had agreed to go was that they promised the young math nerd he could sit in a back pew doing math problems.

Sitting there in the back of the church, 12-year-old Freeman heard the young preacher say integration would mean better schools for black children.

That caught his ear. He had heard that white children had new books and up-to-date facilities that weren't available to him and his teachers.

The preacher -- Martin Luther King, Jr. -- told the congregation that even children could play a role in holding the nation to account.

King's words started him thinking, and when the call went out asking for children to march in Birmingham, Hrabowski insisted on marching, against his parents' fears and wishes. The Children's March, as it became known, was the march seen around the world as Bull Connor turned the fire hoses and dogs on children and the full virulence of the Jim Crow South was made visible to all.

"We wanted to pray for better schools," Hrabowski told the audience in Iowa. "That's all we were doing."

He and the other children -- indeed, the entire civil rights movement -- knew that better schools lay at the heart of opportunity for all.

That Children's March helped lay the groundwork for the August 1963 March on Washington, which in turn led to the legal integration of the schools, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As a 12-year-old boy, Hrabowski learned to be optimistic about the power of smart, concerted, collective action, and he continues to be a powerful voice urging the country to think deeply about how to provide a great education to all children. He now leads a traditionally white institution that has produced more African American doctors and research scientists than could be reasonably expected.

The marchers in Birmingham and Washington helped change the world in 1963, in part by demonstrating the deep hunger for education and democracy that had not been suppressed despite savage attempts to do so.

That hunger still exists. And, as a new school year begins, Freeman Hrabowski reminds us, it is time for all educators to awaken and nurture it.