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Education: The 21st Century Civil Rights Battle

By Lester Strong, Chief Executive Officer for AARP Experience Corps


As we take this month to celebrate Black History and how far we’ve come as a nation, let’s not forget the importance of education in the struggle for equality. Just 59 years ago, the United States Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This case established that having separate public schools for Black and white students was unconstitutional.


The verdict was galvanizing. In the mid-20 th century, the battle for equal rights unified our country as never before. Blacks had a strong sense of destiny. It was a time fraught with challenge, and at times peril, but we did not back down. We marched in the streets, stood vigil over lunch counters and schoolhouse steps, and fought for an unlikely dream that, within the span of a decade, would become a reality with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was clear what we were fighting for, and each individual stood to benefit from the movement.


Today the fight for education equality should be no less real, no less relevant. The 19 th century American education reformer, Horace Mann, once said that ‘education … is the great equalizer.’ If that’s so, then we’ve lost ground as we’ve moved into the 21 st century. Education should be our great equalizer and yet so many of us seem unaware that our children are struggling to even graduate from high school.


In 2011, the Annie E. Casey Foundation produced Double Jeopardy, a report on how third-grade reading skills and poverty affect high school graduation. It found that Black children who live in poverty and attend poorly performing schools are twice as likely not to graduate from high school as white children with similar reading proficiency challenges. Blacks make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population. But Black children make up 30 percent of those who don’t graduate from high school in this country.


In some ways, this leaves us almost worse off than in the segregated education system of the 1950s. While African Americans may no longer be forced to live in inner-city neighborhoods by segregation, far too many of our children live in the grinding cycle of poverty.


Fortunately, many of our elders remain in these communities. As with the first major civil rights battle, they continue their fight — this time for our children. They are our community caretakers, keeping body and soul together by volunteering in churches, community centers, libraries and schools. Their sense of civic duty has not wavered, showing the same level of commitment and sacrifice they did during the fight for civil rights.


As the CEO for AARP Experience Corps, I see this first hand. More than 60 percent of the in-classroom reading tutors who volunteer for us are African American. Their average age is 70. They are steadfast in their desire to share the gift of reading with generations to come.


But they can’t do it alone. Our schools need more funding, more innovative programming, more hope and more dreams. It’s only through our collective voices, working together, that this 21 st century civil rights challenge will be answered.




Lester Strong is Chief Executive Officer for AARP Experience Corps, a program which utilizes the time and talents of adults fifty and older as reading tutors and mentors for children in kindergarten through third grade. AARP Experience Corps serves over 27,000 students in 21 cities across the United States. The program is recognized as the one of the most effective in-school reading interventions in the country. Learn more about Experience Corps, and the 21 communities we serve. Visit


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