01/15/2014 09:51 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

In Education, As in Our Nation, We Rise and Fall Together

It was while he was imprisoned for 27 years under harsh conditions that Nelson Mandela embraced brotherhood and vowed never to answer racism with racism.

Yet jail also helped foment the call for justice in another great humanitarian. In 1963, the year after Mr. Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" of a "network of mutuality" in America:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

As tributes continue to pour in from around the world for Mr. Mandela, who died last month, some maintain that Dr. King, whose life and work we celebrate on Monday, may well be the greatest leader America has produced.

In I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr., author Michael Eric Dyson writes:

Figures like Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson seized the national imagination while holding public office. By contrast, King helped to redefine our country's destiny as a private citizen in a remarkable career that lasted a mere 13 years. As a religious activist and social prophet, King challenged our nation's moral memory. He bid America to make good on promises of justice and freedom for all persons, promises that had been extended almost two centuries before.

That challenge remains. With every two steps we take forward on the path of justice, we seem to slip one step back.

Significant progress toward eliminating Jim Crow laws and addressing social inequities, for example, was made during the 1960s and '70s. Yet this progress seemingly slowed when, in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the concept of local control and policies that restrict considerations of race in admission to colleges and universities. Student populations in some suburban schools have become fairly well integrated. Yet vestiges of discrimination may remain in academic tracking policies that support racist beliefs about which students in those districts are naturally gifted and which are not.

As an educator, I strongly advocate for the promise of America and the inherent need for a network of mutuality.

School, after all, is the great equalizer, a place where those willing to work with concerted effort can realize hopes and dreams. Yet because of residential segregation and income inequality, school as "place" is at times a proxy for racism and classism.

I had that thought recently when a colleague privately shared a troubling story with me. The colleague, a highly ranked school district administrator, was disturbed after being approached by representatives of the district's board of education. The administrator was told that the district's black and Latino students had made rapid progress: They were catching up too quickly, academically, to the district's white students. Though the white students had made significant strides as well, the administrator was told that the instructional focus had to shift.

The implication seemed to be this: If all students achieved at high levels, then how would one discern the academically gifted students from those considered lacking in intellectual capacity? Many readers will find this impossible. Surely, all Americans want all students to succeed. Yet programs that sort students by perceived ability in urban and suburban schools continue to call this premise into question.

In his new book, The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America, David Dante Troutt argues that the negatives of "localism," or local control, have resulted in economic, residential and school segregation, where 10 percent of America's citizens benefit but the vast majority do not.

Given the shift from a majority-white to majority-non-white population, the upward trajectory of such a small segment of Americans is unsustainable. Troutt writes that "interdependency is a local fact for most of us despite decades of segregation policies separating us by race, class and place."

So how do we move forward as a nation? How do we proactively address a national need for an interactive mutuality?

It is about leadership, and the need for such leaders as Dr. King.

Dyson writes:

Part of King's enormous genius was the ability to force America to confront its conscience [that] ... he brilliantly urged America to reclaim a heritage of democracy buried beneath cold documents and callous deeds.

As we celebrate Dr. King, it is my hope we are reminded that the future of a great nation depends on "a greater commitment to equity and interdependency in the laws and responsibilities for creating middle-class opportunities," as Troutt said in his important book.

For me it is neither unrealistic nor quixotic to believe in the founding principles of our democracy. It is about what binds us together. It is about justice.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at