Following are excerpts from a talk given Feb. 6 at a forum in New York City commemorating Black History Month.
Feb. 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the sit-ins at so-called “whites only” lunch counters in Greensboro, N.C., a struggle that effectively launched the student movement for African-American civil rights. On that day, four Black students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter at 4:30 pm and ordered coffee. When they were refused, they remained in their seats until the counter closed at 5:30.
Five days later more than 500 students packed the Woolworth’s, as well as Kress, stores. In just two months, the sit-in movement had spread to 54 cities in nine states.
These actions led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and later, the Black Panther Party, with militant youth leaders like Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by the FBI at the age of 21.
In the 1970s, campuses rocked with protests to demand the inclusion of the histories, literature and other contributions of Black people and other people of color in school curricula.
So it is fitting that we discuss the March 4 National Day of Action to Defend Education, as it continues the legacy of the struggles of Black and other oppressed students and youth in the 1960s and 1970s. The ruling class today is attempting to use the economic and political crises to roll back the gains won by those struggles.
They’re trying to make students and youth pay for the instability of the capitalist system by raising our tuitions and slashing school budgets. Here in New York, they’re closing at least 19 K-12 [kindergarten through 12th grade] schools and raising tuition at the City University of New York and State University of New York schools. CUNY has historically been the college system for working youth of color, one that was once free after students fought for and won the right to education.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority wants to cut the free student MetroCards that K-12 students use to get to and from school each day — here in New York the subways are the equivalent of school buses in other parts of the country. The MTA uses students as pawns to negotiate for more money from the state. High school students have been protesting in the hundreds in demonstrations across the city.
In places like Arizona, they’re whipping up racism to eliminate ethnic studies programs. The ruling class knows all too well that these are programs that ultimately teach us our legacy of resistance to oppression and repression.
We learn these legacies to steel ourselves for future struggle, so that we can see where we’ve come from, how we did it, and where we have to go. We honor these legacies not by remembering them, but by continuing them.
March 4 is where we’re going next. Like the student civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which was about so much more than rights for students, the March 4 demonstrations are also about more than the right to education. March 4 has really become a nationwide mobilization against the economic crisis. It’s becoming an action against all the budget cuts, in schools and other social services.
The demonstrations will challenge the increased privatization of K-12 schools — which President Barack Obama is trying to push with the drive for charter schools — as well as budget cuts, layoffs, furloughs, tuition increases and student loan debt.
March 4 actions are being endorsed by unions across the country — the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY, with 20,000 faculty and adjunct lecturers, recently endorsed. The Transport Workers Union had a meeting to build support for the event. In California, the executive board of the San Francisco Labor Council has endorsed, as has the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, the California Faculty Association, the United Educators of San Francisco and the California Teachers Association. Many student organizations have also endorsed throughout the country.
In Baltimore, students with the Algebra Project are planning to march to a youth detention center to challenge “the school-to-prison pipeline.” In Baltimore, $300 million is slated to refurbish youth prisons. The Algebra Project is demanding that $100 million of that money go to youth jobs.
Here in New York, feeder marches are being planned throughout the city that will converge for a major march from Gov. Paterson’s office to the MTA. K-12, as well as college and university students, teachers, parents and families are all expected to participate.
The youth group FIST was instrumental in initially raising the idea of a nationwide protest to defend education, and has been equally instrumental in the organizing of that effort. All of us — whether you’re a youth or student, educator, parent or ally — have to seize this moment and join full force in the effort to make March 4 a success.