Stop Trying to Tell Us What Our Heroes Would Say About Today’s Schools

One of the single most infuriating liberties in which white privilege manifests itself is attempting to define other people’s heroes.

The 2nd principle of Kwanzaa calls on us to apply Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) to our lives. This Swahili term can be defined as “the right to define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.”

Unfortunately, over this past year, on several occasions, white people of affluence and privilege have attempted to lecture me and others on who our heroes were and what they would have stood for today. They not only want to define Blacks folks and decide how we educate our communities, but they also want to cite our heroes in defense of the indefensible.

It is not too difficult to fathom that freedom fighters, like Dr. ML King, would resist the status quo that has undermined the education of Black children for generations. He and others would not stand in the way of educational justice.

Anti-reform folks swoon when trying to apply Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” to integration (some of them blame 25 year old charters for America’s historically segregated schools). The anti-charter crowd salivates while trying to juxtapose Dr. King’s solidarity with Black sanitation workers’ union with their unholy alliance with traditional labor.

Would Dr. King approve of what you said about integration?!

When I get messages asking me would Dr. King be okay with me rejecting the idea that Black students can’t achieve unless they attend white schools, I have to ask them to fall back.

White folks, stop trying to define our heroes for us. Your attempts to lecture Black people about where Dr. King would have stood on charter schools, integration, etc. is ridiculous and disrespectful. If you want to learn lessons from Dr. King, know that many of us identify with his radicalism. While his speech about dreaming about joyful integration resonates with you, his realization that he may be trying to “integrate in a burning house” resonates with some of us.

We are not a monolithic group of people. Our belief in what is best for our youth’s education is as varied as our other tastes. What most of us agree on is the systems “constructed” to educate our community’s youth are failing.

Know that Dr. King was revolutionary in thought, and it is hard to imagine that he would stand in the way of school choice, high standards, and accountability in the pursuit of crafting better educational outcomes for Black, Latino, and poor kids.

To think Dr. King would stand with the NAACP foolhardy stance against poor families’ right to school choice is quite unimaginable. We would not expect liberals to stand with him. History shows that many liberals were abandoning him as soon as he championed causes other than spending money where it wasn’t really wanted.

You don’t know Dr King-You’re familiar with one speech.

I can hear Dr. King bellowing, “You don’t know me!” over Ray Charles’ piano.

Dr. King was marching towards the middle, meeting another revolutionary, Malcolm X, who was also evolving to create a collaborative effort to further support the self-determination of Black people. When announcing the formation of the OAAU, Malcolm minced no words with demanding that the NY School District turnover 30% of the schools because they were historically failing.

It is now 50 years later. Smug liberals, confused Black folks like the NAACP, and others who safely tuck their own children in a blanket of school choice, try to further neuter and pasteurize Dr. King and other heroes by casting them as anti-charter, anti-school choice, and anti-accountability. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stokely Carmichael once said that “…can they, in fact, begin to move into and tear down the institutions which have put us all in a trick bag that we’ve been into for the last hundred years?…”

What institution has put more Black folks in a “trick bag” than the standard, traditional neighborhood school system, landlocked away from equity and justice, walled away from achievement and choice?

It is time for a new direction. A path of choice that has been denied to the Black, Brown, and poor communities forever. Millions of families are walking away from the burning schools and heading towards that which the privileged have long held tightly as their own.

The right to a quality education is a human right, one that has been denied to the same population that was denied other rights. It is easy to see who our heroes would stand with and by. Just as our heroes didn’t stand with oppressive aspects of the status quo then, they surely would not defend the status quo today.

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.


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