SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
DAVID HENDERSON: OK. I'm David Henderson. I'm a professor in the department of mathematics. And for the last two or three years, I've had the privilege of working on curriculum development for the algebra project, which is headed by today's speaker, Robert Moses.
Robert Moses is a distinguished professor at Florida International University and also the Frank Rhodes class of '56 visiting professor at Cornell. And so those of us that were privileged to be at his talk last night heard him give a talk on the quality of public school education as a constitutional right. And he was looking at it from the point of view of the Constitution and the Supreme Court.
Today, he's going to be talking on the same topic, quality education, quality public school education as a constitutional right, but looking at it from the point of view of educational access from the point of view of schools and education. And tomorrow at 7 o'clock will be the last of the trilogy, when he'll be talking about it from the point of view of his own personal experiences in the civil rights movement and the history of Mississippi, so a more specific localized setting.
And I want to remind everybody that tonight, or this evening, at 7:30, I think it is, there's going to be a forum on quality education as a civil right led by the national coordinator of the Quality Education is a Civil Right Movement, who is Mike Molina, who's over here. Why don't you stand up and raise your hand? And that forum will be in the Becker House Commons. And if you don't know about the Becker House yet, it's one of the new buildings on West Campus. So go down the hill, look for the big crane, and it's right next to the crane.
OK. So without further ado, let me introduce you to Robert Moses.
ROBERT MOSES: It's shifted to the left, huh?
OK. So I've been working trying to tell a story-- my own story-- about the country in relationship to the work that has evolved for me over the course of the years first with SNCC in Mississippi in the 60s, and then with the Algebra Project.
And one way I think about that work is that in the 60s, we were using the right to vote as an organizing tool for political access. And the Algebra Project is using math literacy as an organizing tool for educational and economic access. And I was motivated to try to piece together my own understanding of the country's story by my experiences in high school classrooms in Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi. I needed something that helped me understand what I was seeing and experiencing in the classrooms.
I'm not a historian, and so the stories that I've put together are from books that I've read. And today, the story today is particularly influenced by these five books, three of which are by Nicholas Lemmon. The Promised Land was the first, The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America. And then he came out with The Big Test-- The Secret History of American Meritocracy. And then just last year, he came out with Redemption-- The Last Battle of the Civil War.
The two other books, one is by John M. Barry, The Rising Tide-- The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America. And then a little book by James Conant, Slums and Suburbs.
In 1841, Charles Percy, a 20-year-old, abandoned an Alabama plantation worth a quarter of a million dollars loaded family and furniture overseers and slaves onto barges and flatboats, floated the Tennessee to the Ohio, the Ohio to the Mississippi, the Mississippi to a landing south of Mound Landing in north of what was to become Greenville.
Percy's slaves cut through 15 miles of cane 20 feet high to Deer Creek and some of the finest land in all the delta and built a house with ceilings so high that even in dead summer heat, its center hall was a very cave of coolness. Charles Percy was not the only one moving west. In the 1830s, 16,000 Cherokees marched west along the Trail of Tears, forced out of their homelands in northern Georgia. The nation had determined that all of the land east of the Mississippi River was to belong overwhelmingly to white Americans.
Choctaws, Chickasaw, Cretes, and Seminoles joined the Cherokees and trekked across the Mississippi to territories obtained from France in 1802 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Making that trek was a Cherokee Native American in the prime years of his adult life dressed in the manner of white people, accompanied by his wife and children. Elias Boudinot crossed the Mississippi with his family on his way to Indian territory and his assassination.
It took place at a reasonable hour, about 9:00 in the morning when Boudinot was on his way to work shortly after he arrived. Four men approached him to get some medicine. On the way, one stabbed him in the back, and another killed him with seven blows to his head. The four were carrying out Cherokee tribal law, which regarded the selling of tribal land as treason.
When Andrew Jackson became the people's president, he had written Boudinot a letter to remind him of the moral and political danger facing Cherokees living in the midst of a white population. And he had instructed Congress to separate out of American space and into Indian space all Indians established in the midst of a superior race.
The River had its own space. By geological standards, the lower Mississippi River is a young, even infant stream, and runs through what is known as the Mississippi embayment, a declivity covering approximately 35,000 square miles that begins 30 miles north of Cairo, where the Ohio enters the Mississippi, and extends to the Gulf of Mexico.
Think of mountains of dirt amassed in units of cubic miles one mile high, one mile wide, and one mile long. Over thousands of years, the river poured 1,280 of these cubic miles of sediment into its declivity.
Down the water came from the breadth of the continent, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Allegheny Mountains of New York and Pennsylvania, the Great Smokies of Tennessee, the forests of Montana, the iron fields of Minnesota, and the plains of Illinois, carrying its sediment load into the river's declivity and onto its diamond-shaped jewel, its Mississippi Delta, an area twice the size of Connecticut, 7,000 square miles of topsoil tens of feet thick.
In 1901, the American Economic Association said, "Nature knows not how to compound a richer soil." Charles Percy and his company of slaves carved field out of the delta's jungle on the natural levees adjacent to the river and its tributaries, but the rest of the delta was still wild, home to bears, alligators, wolves, and black panthers as large as young calves.
In 2005, three white newspaper reporters from the Hartfort Courant published Complicity-- How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited From Slavery, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, professor of history and African-American studies at Harvard wrote the forward, reminding us that New England citizens, ready to then and there abolish slavery, were not as ready to welcome freed slaves into the political community known as the people of the United States.
Calling our attention to the characters created in Uncle Tom's Cabin, where Ophelia, the book's designated racist, constantly criticizes Augustine St. Clair, a Louisiana slave-owning cousin, yet cannot bring herself to touch Topsy, his black uncivilized slave. Augustine challenges Ophelia, if we emancipate, will you educate-- a question that lingers.
In 1851, on the eve of the Civil War, one year before Harriet Beecher Stowe published that outcry against slavery, Charles Percy, just 30 years old, died. William Alexander Percy, his younger brother, took charge of family affairs. A Princeton graduate with a law degree from the University of Virginia, this Percy understood power. When he lay down to rest 37 years later in 1888, nearly every thread of Powell investment in the delta had run through his fingers.
Percy opposed secession, but immediately after Mississippi seceded, raised a regiment of Confederate volunteers, became its Colonel, and during the war, earned the nickname the Gray Eagle. White-haired, aloof, steely-eyed, but also charming, the Gray Eagle returned home to desolation. Confederate soldiers returning to the delta found a wilderness and a waste, blue cane 15 and sometimes 20 feet high.
The Gray Eagle's first priorities were to rebuild the levees by reorganizing the levee system and convincing the governor and the state legislature to create a new levee board. Percy naturally control the board, which put its deposits in banks, especially those on which Percy sat.
Next, Percy turned his attention to organizing a railroad to cross the state from east to west. The levee board and the railroads linked Percy to the financial markets of New York and London and the political markets of Washington, and helped spread his influence within the state, particularly over the nexus of race, money, and power. Even so, less than 10% of the delta was developed.
President Lincoln's assassination through the presidency to Andrew Johnson, who permitted the Confederate forces to regain control of their state legislatures. The democratic state Mississippi legislature passed black codes that legislated freed slaves to forced labor without citizen status. Congress reacted in 1868 with passage of the 14th Amendment and the impeachment of President Johnson. Congress refused to readmit Mississippi to the union, which had rejected the 14th Amendment.
In the days between April 9, 1865, when General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox and April 14, when John Wilkes Booth laid Lincoln down, the president reflected on what happens in war when the fighting stops. He said, "It is not merely how arms are taken up and why, but equally how they are laid down and why, and then what follows."
In 1868, when Mississippi refused to ratify the 14th Amendment, President Grant appointed Adelbert Ames as provisional governor. The Enforcement Acts tied to the 15th Amendment of 1870 enable the freed slaves to elect a Republican legislature, which selected Ames as one of its candidates.
In 1873, Ames ran for governor. And with Mississippi Negro voters turned out in great numbers to give Ames a 30,000 margin over Alcorn, they also elected a Republican majority, which included nine black senators out of 37 and 55 state representatives out of 115.
But the racial tracks on which the nation would travel had been laid down already and sanctified on April 13, 1873, Easter Sunday, when the white militia attacked and burned down the courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, and then massacred the blacks along that section of the Red River. The Colfax settlement on the banks of the Red River in the exact center of Louisiana became the locale in which the great national questions the war had raised would be settled with profound and lasting consequences for the whole United States.
By March 28, 1874, three former Confederate officers in Alexandria, a few miles from Colfax, started The Caucasian, a newspaper dedicated to the proposition that it was time to re-establish white supremacy in Louisiana by force. And by June, the White League had been established in Opelousas, another town on the Red River. The White League became the military arm of the Democratic Party and spread to Mississippi.
The municipal elections in Vicksburg set for August 5, 1874 mark a turning point. On July 20, AK Davis, the black lieutenant governor of Mississippi, wrote President Grant about the situation in Vicksburg. "Armed bodies of men are parading the streets both night and day. The city authorities are utterly unable to protect the lives and properties of the citizens. I'm constrained to ask that two companies of US troops be at once ordered to Vicksburg to ensure the citizens against domestic violence, which is imminent. Please answer at once."
The anti-reconstruction historian [? J.E. ?] [? McNeily ?] noted the significance of the sweeping Democrat party victory on August 5. He said, "The result, moral and political, extended far beyond Vicksburg. The significant and signal overthrow of a radical ticket that followed the administration's refusal to back it with troops reveal the fatal weakness of the whole fabric of government. It pointed to the certainty of the recovery of white rule whenever the pressure of the federal force should be lifted."
In 1875, William Alexander Percy, the Gray Eagle, stepped briefly into an overt political position as speaker of the Mississippi State legislature to oversee the articles of impeachment against Governor Adelbert Ames. The key article concerned the money that Republicans allocated for the education of the freed slaves. Percy wanted that money to establish railroads in the delta, the transportation infrastructure for the economic empire to be built on black labor.
In the months leading up to the 1875 statewide election for legislators, the Mississippi Democratic Party operated both a conventional party apparatus and a terrorist one. Local militias called White Leaguers that drilled at night and patrolled the streets, threatening and attacking colored people. Unable to get federal troops from President Grant, Governor Ames tried to organize a state militia of white Republicans, but reported, "I have not been able to find even one man to cooperate with me."
In 1875, Representative John Roy Lynch was a black congressman from southwest Mississippi. He went to see Grant about a postmaster's ship, and used the opportunity to ask Grant why he did not send in the troops. Lynch wrote later that Grant had prepared a proclamation to do that, but a delegation from Ohio persuaded him not to. Ohio had voted by a wide margin not to ratify the 15th Amendment, so that sending troops to Mississippi would be so unpopular in Ohio that the Democrats would surely capture the governorship.
Rutherford B. Hayes was elected the Republican governor of Ohio in 1875, setting the stage for the presidential election of 1876, the traditional midpoint of the nation's history.
On December 7, 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant argued for a constitutional amendment to establish public schools for the freed slaves in his seventh annual message to the United States Congress.
He said, "As the primary step, therefore, to advancement in all that has marked our progress in the past century, I suggest for your earnest consideration and most earnestly recommend it that a constitutional amendment be submitted to the legislatures of the several states for ratification, making it the duty of each of the several states to establish and forever maintain free public schools adequate to the education of all the children in the rudimentary branches within their respective limits, irrespective of sex, color, birthplace, or religions, and prohibiting the granting of any school funds, or school taxes, or any part thereof, either by legislative, municipal, or other authority, for the benefit or in aid directly or indirectly of any religious sect, or denomination, or an aid, or for the benefit of any other object of any nature or kind whatever." But it was already too late.
After the Civil War, the state acquired more than 2,300,000 of mostly undeveloped delta land. More than half the entire delta had been forfeited to the state for back taxes. By 1881, the Gray Eagle had manipulated two huge land deals. The first saw over 3/4 of a million acres sold for a pittance to the YMMV, which became the Yellowdog Railroad of blues fame, a railroad company which didn't own a single railroad car and hadn't laid a single railroad track, whose board of directors was identical to that of the Illinois Central's board which owned it.
The president of the Illinois Central Stuyvesant Fish was a descendant of the original Dutch founders of New York City. His father Hamilton Fish had been governor of New York, a New York senator, and a secretary of state. Their descendants would represent the same New York congressional district from 1910 until 1994. Stuyvesant had gambled the fortunes of the Illinois Central on a train line to New Orleans when the company had financial difficulties in the early 1870s.
But when James Buchanan E. boarded the Steamer Hudson on May 12, 1876 at the mouth of the Mississippi River and the 280-foot-long, 1,182-ton ocean liner drawing 14 feet, seven inches of water, carried her great white bough wave higher and higher up her hull, and steam through the [? jettys ?] [? east ?] had master-minded along the south pass to open the Port of New Orleans permanently to the traffic of the known world.
Foreign and domestic capital bent toward the lands paralleling the river, and traffic on the Illinois Central jumped 500% in three years. Stuyvesant called the extension to New Orleans the salvation of the company and committed the railroad to the delta and the region. Percy's second deal passed along another 3/4 of a million acres into the hands of JP Morgan.
To win the 1876 presidential election, the Democrats adopted the Mississippi Plan. The covert wing of the party, free-roaming ex-Confederate soldiers, were loosely organized and permitted to murder and terrorize Republican political events while the overt wing of the party provided a respectable public face.
Rutherford Hayes ran against Samuel Tilden, governor of New York, and the election was so close that it led to the compromise of 1877. The Democrats agreed to let Hayes become president and the Republicans agreed in return to remove the remaining troops from the South. Reconstruction was over. The South had won. The events in Mississippi in 1875 had been the decisive battle.
At 12:30 PM, Thursday, April 21, 1927, Major John Lee, the army district engineer in Vicksburg, wired General Edgar Jadwin, head of the Army Corps of Engineers, "Levee broke at Ferry Landing, Mounds, Mississippi, 8:00 AM. Crevasse will overflow entire Mississippi Delta."
Like some great beast proclaiming its dominance, the river roared through the crevasse, drowning all sounds for miles inland. A wall of water 3/4 of a mile across and more than 100 feet high raged on to the delta and gouged a 100-foot deep channel half a mile wide for a solid mile inland. Thousands of blacks frantically piling sandbags were swept away at an enormous rate of speed inland, never to be seen again.
There is no accurate count of the number of men swept to death as the levees broke. The official count that of the National Guard offers that the crevassed site stated only, "No lives were lost among the guardsmen." But things would never be the same again. The River pumped the water through the crevasse for months and forced Congress and President Coolidge to pass legislation, making the federal government, for the first time in its history, fully responsible for the Mississippi River.
The Gray Eagle died in 1888, and his son LeRoy with a capital R, LeRoy, took over the reins of power that had gathered in his father's hands. Percys saw themselves as [? bourbons, ?] descendants of the Normans who had conquered the Anglo-Saxon, men meant to rule over other men. LeRoy had no use for rednecks, but he didn't want to count on the Negro, either. "There is not enough of him," he said. "And what there is is not good enough."
But between 1892 and 1906 when eight million immigrants sought a new life in America, less than 3,000 would seek it in Mississippi. Only blacks were available, and they would have to do.
On November 23, 1916, in Kemper County, Mississippi, a 15-year-old Ardell Hopkins gave birth out of wedlock to Ruby and her twin sister, Ruth. Ruby's grandfather, George Hopkins, took his shotgun after her father, Sam Campbell, who left a soldier in World War I.
Shortly after Ruby was born, a white man, Charlie Gaines, traveled from the delta all the way across Mississippi to Kemper County near the Alabama line to recruit black people to relocate to the Hill House Plantation and be sharecroppers. Promised prosperity, Ruby's grandfather gathered his wife Letha, their daughter Ardell, and the twins, and moved them to Hill House, right outside of Clarksdale, sitting in the middle of the delta, an alluvial plane 200 miles long and 50 miles wide stretching between the Mississippi and the Yazoo Rivers, from Memphis to Vicksburg, from Greenwood to Greenville.
Ruby lived at Hill House with Ruth, her twin sister, George and Letha Hopkins, her grandparents, Ardell, her mother, who turned 16 and married a man named George Washington Stamps, known as GW. In 1919, Ruby's grandparents quarreled and split up, and her grandmother Letha moved Ardell, GW, and the twins down to a plantation in Anguilla, Mississippi near the river. But in 1922, the Mississippi flooded and the owner moved them to Tallwood, his plantation outside of Clarksdale on New Africa Road.
Two years later in 1924, Letha died, and Ruby went with Ardell and GW to another plantation on New Africa Road where they made the crops of 1925 and 1926. But in 1926, GW ran off with another woman, and Ardell took Ruby and her twin sister to one of their sisters' place on a pecan plantation on an island in the middle of Boon Lake. Ruby was 11 years old on that island in 1927 when the crevasse formed at Mounds Landing and the river took back its delta.
On the morning of Good Friday, April 15, 1927, six days before the crevasse at mounds landing, it was, "Senator Percy, how are you?" And, "Senator Percy, good to see you." And, "Senator Percy, do you think the levees will hold?" Freed slaves and their immediate descendants had built those levees working in delta levee camps.
A young engineer from the North reported on the camp's hellishness. "You'd seen a swarm of gnats bunched together, you can form some idea of how thick the mosquitoes are here. The way these levee niggers shoot one another is something fearful. One got shot in a crap game last night. It didn't even stop the game. If one of the white foreman shoots a couple of niggers on the works, the work is not stopped. The long arm of the law does not reach here."
It had rained heavily for months. And now, it was raining again. And LeRoy Percy had come to the levee to consult with Allen, the chief engineer of the Mississippi Levee Board in Greenville. No man mattered more in the Mississippi Delta or perhaps anywhere the length of the river than he, not only a planter and a lawyer, but a former US senator, a director of railroads, the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, and a Federal Reserve Bank. An interment of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, Percy was determined that even if the river burst the levees, the society his family had created would survive.
A few miles north of where Percy and his party stood at Mound Landing, the Mississippi River would shortly be carrying in excess of 3 million cubic feet of water each second.
After the flood, more than 13,000 blacks lived on the levee at Greenville in an elongated city that snaked for more than eight miles complete with electric lights, pipes for water, barges for latrines. There were tents for shelter, but blacks still slept on the wet ground, for cots had not yet arrived. There were no mess halls and no eating equipment. Beyond the line of tents, thousands of livestock stretched from miles. The stench was unbearable.
The National Guard patrolled the perimeters of the levee camp with rifles and fixed bayonets. To enter or leave, one needed a pass. They were in an outdoor prison. They were no longer free.
LeRoy Percy's son, Will Alexander Percy, was nominally in charge of the Red Cross operations on the delta, but his father pulled the levers out of Will's sight and refused to evacuate the blacks. They were his work force. He needed them if his society was to survive.
Ardell remarried on Moon Lake, but our new husband was jealous and made her stand in the doorway of their shack when he was plowing to keep an eye on her. The first chance she got, Ardell left Ruby and Ruth with an elderly minister and his wife and slipped off again. Ruby, 12 years old, was baptized on Moon Lake in 1928.
Ardell settled in with a new man in a nearby town called Lula and sent for the twins. But when her romance broke up, she sent Ruby and Ruth to live with their grandfather, George, who was remarried and sharecropping on the Belen Plantation northeast of Clarksdale. Ruby was still 12 when she helped chop and pick the cotton crop of 1929 at Belen.
Next year, when Ruby was 13, Ardell married again to Sidney Burns and took the twins back on to another plantation on New Africa Road. Then in August 1930, Ardell took sick. Her body seemed to swell up, and she could barely move. On a Sunday evening, October 5, 1930, she died at the age of 30. Ruby, her twin sisters, and Sidney Burns finished making the cotton crop, and then Ruby and Ruth started moving again-- first on to an aunt's place on another plantation, then to their grandfather's again.
The Great Depression had begun the panic crash, and times got harder. George, Ruby's grandfather, always seemed to come out behind after the settle. And after the settle of 1931, he got kicked out before he could slip out. At that point, Ruby had no shoes. She had to walk barefoot for 10 miles down the road to an aunt's house and ask to be taken in.
The panic crash prodded Harvard Cooperation to change the nature of the presidency at Harvard, and they selected James Bryant Conant, a chemistry professor, as president.
By the 1930s, a distinct American upper class had emerged. It was very much on display at Harvard, where up to the start of World War II, rich heedless young men with servants, whose lives revolved around parties and sports, set the tone of college life. At a time when a quarter of the American workforce was unemployed and desperate, they lived in private apartments attended by butlers and maids in a district called the Gold Coast, went to debutante balls in Boston, did not customarily attend classes, and enrolled in special tutoring schools at the end of each semester so they would be able to pass their exams.
Conant called in Henry Chauncey, one of his deans, and assigned in the task of finding a new admissions test that would enable Harvard to recruit public school students as Harvard national scholars. Chauncey decided on the SAT, an intelligence test, because Conant was adamantly opposed to using an achievement test. What Conant didn't like about achievement tests was that they favored rich boys whose parents could buy them top-flight high school instruction. He wanted to award his scholarships to very bright boys from every corner of the social structure, little Conants.
On February 2, 1935, on a big plantation owned by a rich white family named the Selfs, about 15 miles east of Clarksdale, smack in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, Ruby Hopkins married WD. Ruby wasn't sharecropping on the Self plantation. She went there after the settle to spend Christmas with her grandfather, George Hopkins. But it rained for three days without stopping, and her grandfather's cabin and all the roads flooded.
Camping out on the hill, she got courted by WD, who told Ruby he'd like to marry her. She told him he'd better do it soon, because as soon as the floodwaters went down, she was going back to live with his sister Ruth and aunt Ceatrice on New Africa Road, where Harold Brown stayed. WD needed to know that Harold wanted to marry her too. Years later, looking back, Ruby figured she married WD because she had just turned 18 and wanted to be grown.
After the crop of 1938, Ruby talked WD into moving to Clarksdale to work for the WPA, a program set up by Franklin Delano Roosevelt that paid poor black people doing manual labor a dollar a day. Ruby, only 22 years old, had moved between 14 different plantations sharecropping around Clarksdale. But now, her sharecropping days were over.
In Clarksdale, Ruby got by. She could buy salt pork, or beans, or black eyed peas for $0.05 a pound. She could make a batch of biscuits with a nickel's worth of flour. Growing up, she was taught to look up to white people, not to hate them. White people ran everything. They lived well. If you were black, you had to get things from white people. Now, when she ran low on money, she could go out on the trucks on Saturday and pick cotton. She would get up at 6:00 in the morning, make her way to the corner of Fourth and Issaqueena streets and wait for the trucks from the Hopson Plantation. They paid the most.
On October 2, 1944, an estimated 3,000 white people gather at the Hopson Plantation to watch eight bright red machines pick all the cotton on section C3 at the plantation, 62 bales. In April of 1944, Richard Hopson who ran the Hopson Plantation wrote a letter to the local Cotton Industry Association.
He said, "I'm confident that you are aware of the acute shortage of labor which now exists in the delta, and the difficult problems which you expect to have in the attempting to harvest a cotton crop this fall and for several years to come. I'm confident that you are aware of this serious racial problem which confronts us at this time and which may become more serious as time passes. I strongly advocate the farmers of the Mississippi Delta changing as rapidly as possible from the old sharecropper system of farming to complete mechanized farming. Mechanized farming will require only a fraction of the amount of labor required by the sharecrop system, thereby tending to equalize the white and Negro population, which would automatically make our racial problem easier to handle."
A lawyer from the Mississippi Delta discussed consequences of mechanizing cotton harvesting. He said, "The coming agricultural displacement in the delta and the whole South is of huge proportions and must concern the entire nation. The time to prepare for it is now. But since we as a nation rarely act until catastrophe is upon us, it is likely we shall meddle along until it is too late. The country is upon the brink of a process of change as great as any that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution. 5 million Negroes will be removed from the land within the next few years. They must go somewhere, but where? They must do something, but what? They must be housed, but how?"
The mechanization of cotton harvesting and other influences contribute to the great migration of African-American families between 1940 and 1960. Over one half million black people migrated to Chicago from the deep South. During one stretch, 2,200 blacks poured into the city every week.
In August, 1946, the Chicago Housing Authority opened Framework Park Homes, a new housing project in a white neighborhood on the southwest side. It was supposed to be 8% black. On the opening day, a mob of 5,000 angry whites appeared, and it took 1,000 policemen two weeks to get the rioting under control.
When Ben Willis, who was superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, pondered the problem of finding space for the children of sharecroppers who were pouring by the thousands into Chicago, he chose not to integrate white schools that were adjacent to Negro neighborhoods and usually half-empty. Instead, he put black schools on double shifts, 8 to noon and noon to four, installed trailers to use as temporary classrooms. He put them in the school playgrounds so the children had no place to play. Blacks call them Willis Wagons.
Bryant Conant spent the years studying public education in America. In slums and suburbs, he identified the barriers to establishing education as the official repository for opportunity in America. After the Civil War, he said, "The country north and south, east and west acquiesced in the establishment of a caste system for the freed slaves. What we have discovered is that the driving force in the perpetuation of America's racial caste system is its educational system."
The 1964 Civil Rights Act recognized that education is the official repository for opportunity in American life. Congress appropriated funds to examine the minority performance discrepancies in public schools. The task was assigned to ETS, the Educational Testing Service. In 1966, ETS issued the Coleman Report, which concluded that the racial disparities in academic performance levels were far greater than anyone had anticipated, and might take generations to remedy.
But it was Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Thomas Pettigrew who convened a yearlong seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education during the 1966-'67 academic year to examine the Coleman Report and put the spin on it.
They concluded that Negro students' academic performance could not be improved because the root of the problem lay not in the schools, but in the dysfunction of Negro families and communities. Moynihan recommended that President Nixon adopt a policy of benign neglect, which unfortunately has not had benign consequences for the African-American community.
Henry Chauncey's son, Henry Jr., Sam, attended Groton like all the Chauncey boys. There, he was a decent student, one of the leaders of his class, and the devoted adherence to the Groton ideal of public service. In a minor departure from family tradition, he attended Yale instead of Harvard. After graduating, he became an assistant dean at his alma mater.
He decided one day to take advantage of his new position by doing what every student wants to do but usually cannot. He went to the Yale admissions office and found his application folder. In the place reserved for the officer's assessment of the candidate, someone had written just three words, "Henry Chauncey's son." So much for standardized tests and the much-vaunted but mythical notion of meritocracy.
A couple of hundred years have gone by since this nation was founded. As John Adams predicted, our pure virtuous and public spirited federal republic has endured. America decides how the globe is to be governed and the means by which nations are democratized. As Americans, we reserve for ourselves the presumption of innocence, one of the foundations of our rule of law.
But as the inscription on Kingman Brewster's grave site, the president of Yale, indicates, "The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In common sense terms, it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger." The generosity of spirit that assumes the best in individuals has never been accorded to African-Americans. Our nation has long been far too willing to assume the worst about them.
AUDIENCE: What would you view as the most important examples of current efforts to dismantle this kind of privilege [INAUDIBLE]? Are there places that you can point to that you think are encouraging?
ROBERT MOSES: I don't think that's a thought in anybody's mind. I don't think in this country currently that there's a thought that we should really revamp our public school system. The idea in the minds of the country is that we should not say publicly what we do. That is, what we do is we run a system of failing schools and we rescue those students that we can. And we rescue them by ABC programs, charter schools, affirmative action, vouchers, special schools.
All the different kinds of programs, all of these programs are designed to rescue different categories of students. And so it's our escape valve. It's why the system doesn't blow up, because the steam is allowed to escape through these programs. But we can't say publicly that that's what we do.
And we have never had even a national discussion about education policy. We didn't discuss the SAT. We didn't discuss nationally setting up ETS. We didn't discuss the idea that we should have these national exams that say who gets into what college. We have never been able to have such a discussion. We aren't mature enough as a country to have such a discussion.
AUDIENCE: Can you elaborate on the role of standardized testing and the current push to many colleges away from that as both a way to get around some of the socioeconomic racial disparities that are clear about standardized testing and also sort of a way to separate the ideal of equal access that they were [? instituted and ?] adopted for?
ROBERT MOSES: So the elite colleges, there are some of the elite colleges who admit students who haven't taken standardized tests. And so these are very privileged students, because it's only very privileged students whose parents and who themselves have been empowered to think that they can apply to these colleges without going through the hoops that everybody else has to go through.
So we're just talking about a small percentage of students who could do this. So that policy, whatever it is, isn't designed to overturn this system that we are in. But what else was in your question?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] just a sort of general the emphasis of standardized testing in favor of more-- I guess admissions officers would call it, like, a holistic approach to reading applications, which has been used in a number of different ways through--
ROBERT MOSES: OK. Well, I can't imagine. Maybe someone here knows more about that. Let me just say that from where I sit in the classroom at Edison High School in Liberty City in Miami, they are terrorized by standardized tests.
We had the math instructor for the 10th grade in our classroom last week or the week before getting them ready for the FCATs in March. And they had already taken a nine weeks test getting them ready. And the question is whether the curriculum that we are working with them, the Algebra Project, really is getting them ready for the test, right?
So whatever's happening to standardized tests at the elite universities, well, I guess, it's back to your question. And we just have this system that don't talk to each other. So it's not happening down in the public schools at the bottom of the society. Yes, sir. Yes. Yes.
AUDIENCE: What's your take on Mayor Bloomberg's idea in New York City to pay high school students to come to school, [? giving ?] them these little bits of money to their parents to get them to come to school? What's your take on that?
ROBERT MOSES: So I don't really know much about it. What is he doing? How does he do that?
AUDIENCE: He hasn't done it yet, but he's suggesting that students should get paid to go to school. And he comes from a corporate world, which is where the academia's headed, [INAUDIBLE] statistically. [INAUDIBLE] modeled after corporations, which would pretty much [INAUDIBLE] at least once--
ROBERT MOSES: Well, I'll tell you what I think students should get paid for. And I don't know about Bloomberg's plan. But in the Algebra Project, we have been working with the idea of following a cohort of students through their high school years. And the first cohort that we worked with was at Lanier High School in Jackson, Mississippi, ninth graders in 2002, and we followed them for four years.
What we asked them to do was to take math with us every day 90 minutes a day for their four years of their high school. And then we asked them to jump through the nation's three hoops-- the state hoop, the national hoop, which down there is the ACT, and the university hoop, that when they arrived on the university campus, they should not remediate math, and math should not be an obstacle to a career choice.
So as part of doing that, after their 11th grade year, we arranged for the Mississippi State University to house them for one month. And we had one of their math teachers at the university taught them every day. And we had a writing instructor from Florida International University who came over and taught them writing, how to shift from writing for high school to begin to think about how you write for college.
And we had one of the high school teachers come up and work with them on their reading. And they had other things to do, but they lived in residence there for a month.
We had a stipend for them of a thousand dollars. Some of them have to work during the summer. Some of them have to help support their families. But it also seemed to us it was important to connect the idea that, really, doing something like that in the summer was related also to earning money. And if they didn't do the work, they didn't get the stipend. So there was one young fellow who until the end of his senior year was still bugging me about his thousand dollars.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] Robert Moses.
ROBERT MOSES: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Tomorrow's session is where?
DAVID HENDERSON: [INAUDIBLE] Studies.
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Robert Parris Moses, a celebrated civil rights leader, delivered a lecture on "A Story About Educational Access" Oct. 30. His lecture series is based on the theme "Quality Public School Education as a Constitutional Right."
Moses founded the Algebra Project, a program to build math literacy for African-American and other minority students, and is a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of '56 Professor.