The Abolitionists We Need

Saying the enslaved were happy is akin to saying Black communities are happy sending their children to persistently failing schools. Just as we needed an abolitionist movement then, we need one now-with the right mindset.

I recently read an essay by Amy Crawford. Her piece reminded me of today’s battle between current day education reformers and “status quoers.” What was forgotten, both in 1800 and today, is the role that Black folks historically played in resisting injustice.  While it is helpful for students to be exposed to lessons about White abolitionists, too often this learning is at the expense of silencing the historical leadership role that Black folks played in this fight. The story of the Black men and women passively accepting slavery is as oppressive as the narrative of the passive parent of today who’s locked into a failing school and system.

What Are Your Motives?

I think it’s important to note that there were a variety of reasons that abolitionists wanted our country to be rid of slavery.  For some, it was moral or religious reasons.  Others wanted to undermine the power and wealth of the South.  Often, the incentive to abolish slavery was more political than altruistic.  All abolitionists didn’t necessarily want to abolish slavery because of their love of Black folks. And, in many of their eyes, freedom from bondage did not mean a Black person was their equal. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself to think that everyone who wanted freedom from slavery also fought for equity.

Today, reformers and their opponents spar incessantly about how to help Black and Brown children, while wealthy funders generously fund both sides. And, everyone, on both sides, who claims to desire that Black, Brown, and poor families have access to good schools, isn’t interested in full liberation and equity.

To some folk’s chagrin, some ed reformers heavily invest in charters, for example, while the millions that unions use to buy elections goes largely ignored. Funders of the abolition movement were largely white, and, today, the funders (and most of the recipients of the funding) are equally as monochromic.   

Are Communities of Color and Ed Reformers Aligned?

Today, ed reformers (and union leaders) are not necessarily fighting for the same things that the community is fighting for; although, we will use their support as a means to an end. And, as Black people, while we will most certainly fight for freedom over chains, we yearn for the equity that is advertised in the American Dream. To reach our goals, we know that we must look at nuance, complexity, and our overall interests. As someone once said, “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”

The status quoers, who oppose school choice, accountability, and high standards, do so in opposition of the best interests of the Black community. From one angle, their forefathers opposed freedom, basic civil rights, or, in a more moderate version, had a strong penchant for only liking the slowest of progress.

In the face of rampant failure, anything not radical is oppressive

Today, wealthy, privileged White folks easily and readily start charter schools and other interventions to disrupt the lack of quality school choice and the persistent and decades-long failures in our public schools. And, yes, we need disruption. Lots of it. But, there are also lessons to be learned.

Yesteryear, White people would come to the South to open schools for Black kids without acknowledging the Black teachers who existed and the strategies they used to educate a recently emancipated youth steeped in poverty. In other cases, they might adopt these strategies but not give credit to the Black educators for their contribution.  Too often, these White women teachers (and their male funders) “thought” theirs was the newfangled approach and strategy under the sun.

Somewhere in between, some White allies learned and joined Black Freedom Fighters to oppose inequity and injustice. Many got on buses populated with Black folks. They realized that the real movement was with the people, not to the people.

Liberation is the goal

This is all personal for me. I’m only in this for the liberation of my people. And, although I grew up as a child of the struggle and as a Panther Cub (child of two Black Panther parents), I’m still learning.  The role of Black educational forefathers, and, more often than not, foremothers, has always been an integral part of the landscape and also a part of my learning. It would behoove my White allies to use some of these same lessons.

In the antebellum South, it was largely a crime to teach the 4 million enslaved Black people to read and write. Today, from the cries of foul from status quoers, it would appear that it is a crime for us to demand schools that support our youth’s humanity.

Today, the people who get the publicity for supporting Black communities to free themselves of the bondage of persistently failing schools are mostly White. The funders too. I work at one. Mastery has been in existence for 15 years – my campus for 10.  KIPP has been around for even longer. And, while the founders of these schools are White and privileged, the folks who line up to spar them are mainly White and privileged too. They share more background with each other than with the folks whom they serve–which is why there is a need to pay particular homage to those who know and to those who have done this before and continue to do so without the publicity, funding, or limelight).

Stop Telling Families to be patient in the face of generations of failure

Unfortunately, there are some haunting similarities in many of the arguments of the pro-slavery crowd and today’s anti-civil/human rights groups.  Alarmingly, those who defended shackles, preached patience, and a gradual freedom yesterday, use those same arguments today. They have actually never stopped. Dr. King lambasted them from his shackles in a Birmingham jail for having the audacity to tell those who suffer to patiently await relief. Today, they tell us that school choice is too expensive, it undermines persistently failing schools, and that choice is a form of radicalism. Really?

Those who claim to be pro-equity should be wary of having similar arguments of those who fought against abolition. I know it may sound radical, but we have thousands of drop-out factories in this country-especially in Black and Brown communities.  Anything pedestrian to address it is an act of sabotage.

Today’s Abolition Movement Must Eradicate Systems That Don’t Educate Our Youth

Today’s “abolition” movement, although encompassing many injustices, must be centered on persistently failing schools that mis-educate millions of Black and Brown youth. Today’s status quo is about chaining communities to schools that have not met multiple measures that communities need for decades. When several generations of families can point to neighborhood schools and share the many experiences there that undermined their efforts to reach the so-called “promised lands”, then something as “radical” as abolition needs to occur in those same schools.

Something else that may seem “radical” to some is the idea that Black folks have been escaping persistently failing schools like we used to escape plantations. Our collective desire for freedom, equity, and justice did not die with the signing of the Civil Rights Act or with Obama’s presidency. We still fight for it. We stand on the shoulders of giants as we fight. Giants like Marian Wright Edelman. Freedom Schools have been around since the 1960s and were positioned to serve as a counter balance and a north star for Black families (and funders if they wanted to truly see how to support liberation of our people).

In Philadelphia, Marcus Garvey Shule, Nidhamu Sasa (my elementary school) and others were established so that Black families had a place to flee. Families fled the very schools that today’s status quo defenders swear used to do right by Black kids (“back when America was great”). To claim that charters undermine public education and the right for choice is only to be reserved for the privileged talented tenth amongst us, is nothing short of an oppressive and selective amnesia.



Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Up Next