Jerry T. Jordan, President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, reflects on the 54th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Dr. King’s assassination while he was in Memphis supporting striking AFSCME workers is an event that is forever etched in my mind as a devastating example of the injustices that Black people have faced in this country for our entire lives.

So on this somber day, let us remember– beyond today, beyond tomorrow– what we must do as a society to truly live up to the legacy of Dr. King.

Let us remember all he fought for, all he accomplished, and what we must all do to carry on that legacy.

In thinking about this legacy and how his work is so intertwined with our ongoing work towards education justice, I’d like to share an excerpt from a 1956 speech Dr. King delivered to the National Committee of Rural Schools, because it so profoundly encapsulates so much of our current fight. 

Referring to the Brown v. Board of Education Decision, Dr. King said the following: 

“[The] decision came as a legal and sociological deathblow to an evil that had occupied the throne of American life for several decades. Segregation has always been evil, and only the misguided reactionary clothed in the thin garments of irrational emotionalism will seek to defend it. Segregation is both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable.”

In the same speech, Dr. King went on to emphasize something that is as true today as it was then, saying:

“You see, equality is not only a matter of mathematics and geometry, but it’s a matter of psychology. It’s not only a quantitative something, but it is a qualitative something. And it is possible to have quantitative equality and qualitative inequality. The doctrine of separate but equal can never be.”

Separate but equal can never be. And yet, we see it play out every single day in our schools. Our schools: where every day we have to negotiate, march, rally, and make the case for why OUR children, a majority of whom are Black and brown, deserve the most fundamental of resources. Quite simply, we have to fight for resources that would be a given in a wealthier, whiter school district.

And this fight unfolds against the backdrop of our Commonwealth’s constitution, which promises every child a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. It’s why we just concluded one of the most important lawsuits in Pennsylvania's history–one that quite literally put our school funding system on trial. 

And throughout the case, we heard the facts, the gut wrenching facts, about how our young people have been so profoundly wronged by a broken system. And we also heard defense attorneys and witnesses try to rationalize and justify these systems. 

In their opening statements, lawyers for Senate Majority Leader Bryan Cutler suggested that while school buildings may not be the “Taj Mahal,” students across the Commonwealth have “chairs to sit in, desks or tables to write at, walls and roofs, working plumbing.

But I can guarantee you that any one of their children attended a school where it was quite literally raining inside, or one with shattered asbestos floor tiles or with mold blanketing the ceilings, they would not think that it was enough. 

And yet throughout the case, lawyers for the defense continued to double down on their racist rhetoric, even suggesting that not all students do actually need fully funding education, asking, “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?” Let that sink in: the defense in this case not only attempted to minimize the impacts of underfunding, but also in an overtly racist manner, said that our young people do not need the “thorough and efficient” system of public education to which they are entitled.

So today, as we take time to reflect on the life of Dr. King, and on his devastating assassination, let us remind ourselves that our fight continues. Let us -stay strong in our collective movement towards justice. Towards true equity. Towards a better tomorrow.