Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership
Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was recently honored by the Education
Law Center with the Education Justice Award for national leadership in educational
equity. Before receiving the award at a special reception, Mr. Henderson delivered
ELC's annual Education Justice Lecture at Rutgers University's Bloustein School
of Planning and Public Policy.
This renowned civil rights leader declared organizing, writ large, as the
key to moving toward equity in education. He urged his listeners to join together
and act in the interests of equal opportunity. Now is the time to "seize the
moment," he declared.
The need is urgent, Mr. Henderson added, because young people without a high
school diploma are doomed to a life of poverty. He said the nation's structural
inequalities create extreme barriers for black and brown kids trying to break
out of poverty, and noted that in America jobs no longer exist for people who
have not had an education.
Mr. Henderson touched on a range of education topics, from achievement gaps
to the importance of preschool and the scourge of the "silent scandal" of many
school districts' suspension and expulsion policies that feed "the prison-industrial
complex." He noted that American schools are highly segregated by race and
class, and bemoaned the fact that African Americans and Latinos are over-represented
in the prison population and under-represented in higher education.
Mr. Henderson spoke about the Leadership Conference's many goals, including
education equity and excellence, working with America's great diversity, and
encouraging voting (If you don't vote, you don't count, he said.). The organization's
current short-term goal is passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
We cannot have a strong nation when 11 million people are on the outside looking
in, Mr. Henderson explained.
On a positive note, Mr. Henderson mentioned the federal Equity
Commission Report, which concludes that resolving the substantial financial
inequities in school systems is paramount. In fact, the Leadership Conference
issued a Call to Action in response to the Equity Report, in "Reversing the
Rising Tide of Inequality: Achieving Educational Equity for Each and Every Child."
Mr. Henderson reminded us of dramatic historical events that can inform current
and future advocacy. In 1963, the "modern civil rights movement awakened
this country’s slumber," he said. And, "America has come far but
still has a long way to go," especially in the case of education—the engine
for work and social mobility, he explained. We haven’t fully realized the promise
of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v.
Board of Education. During the 60 years after the 1896 Plessy decision
that said separate schools by race did not offend the U.S. Constitution, advocates
developed and implemented long-term strategies that led to the 1954 victory
in Brown. The advocates’ dream and goal was nothing less than
full equality of opportunity in education.
However, during the next 60 years, from Brown to present, he said,
we haven’t been able to implement the principle of Brown as we wanted.
We have not fully realized its potential. Another U.S. Supreme Court opinion,
in the 1973 Rodriguez v. San Antonio case, "undermined
the main principle of Brown that every child is entitled to an excellent and
equitable education," Henderson stated.
The Education Justice Lecture was a homecoming of sorts for Mr. Henderson,
who studied under Arthur
Kinoy at Rutgers Law School in Newark, graduating in 1973. There he also
met Marilyn Morheuser, ELC's previous Executive Director, who was in his law
school class. Eliciting pride in his audience, Mr. Henderson acknowledged that
New Jersey is far ahead of most other states in establishing educational equity