On the surface of things, it was paradise. Moving to Charleston on August 1, 2011 to teach at the College of Charleston, I was greeted by the Southern heat, ocean breezes, historic homes, palmetto trees and Lowcountry food that elevated the city to a top tourist destination.
Though I did indulge in what Charleston offered, my personal agenda centered on nothing less than teaching and organizing until quality public education was recognized as a constitutional, fundamental right. It was fueled by hallucinatory visions inspired by my distant ancestor John Brown — it was why someone like me would never quite fit in and would ultimately fail in actualizing my agenda.
But as a professor at the College of Charleston and then the University of South Carolina, the director of a short-lived Freedom School in Charleston, and co-founder and co-director of the Quality Education Project, several observations have shaped my teaching and research.
South Carolina is by all accounts ground zero for an education justice movement. The nation has rightfully condemned South Carolina for maintaining one of the worst public systems in the country. As the first colony to formally prohibit the education of Black and enslaved people, South Carolina has offered dismal education throughout its history. Today, by any matrix that measures student achievement or racist disciplinary policy, the Palmetto State is at or near the very bottom. Home of the “Corridor of Shame,” the state education system needs to be completely overhauled and reconstructed.
But South Carolina is not the center of an education justice movement out of sheer necessity alone. The state is a compelling site of resistance because of its deep history of opposing injustice and racist policy. Supported by a historic desire for literacy during slavery, Black legislators constructed the first system of education to guarantee the freedom of all after the Civil War. Then, during Jim Crow, Black activists and educators fought to improve the system of education — culminating in Briggs v. Elliot, bundled with others into Brown v. Board to desegregate schools.
This history — both problematic and proud — is palpable in school board meetings, classrooms and social media. The perennial tension between denying a quality public education and organizing for equitable access continues with ferocity today. This historic struggle and the path forward unfolded quite literally outside my office door.
One block west from where I taught was the birth home of Septima Poinsette Clark, the legendary civil rights activist and educator. Septima Clark was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., she was a mentor to Rosa Parks and she transformed Charleston into a significant site of the civil rights movement. She made an invaluable contribution in her work with the NAACP in equalizing teacher salaries, a commitment for which she lost her job. One block east from my office was the old S.H. Kress building, where on April 1, 1960, 24 Burke High School students organized a lunch counter sit-in. The student-led protest was the first nonviolent direct-action demonstration in Charleston of that historic decade.
Inspiring students and supportive local politicians took up the task to erect markers that now commemorate this hidden history that was literally across the street from my office and the classrooms in which I taught.
These are important to celebrate, but the deeper problem of racism persists. Just blocks from my office at the University of South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster and State Superintendent Molly Spearman — backed by a state legislature that was guided by a white majority — enacted racist policies that maintain the segregation of students and deny traditional public schools the resources they need. State representatives and the national leaders they support are easy to target for impeachment and removal. But so much of their power is drawn from the local level. Charleston is a classic example.
Racist policies are also traced to the whitewashing of South Carolina under a progressive mantle and a host of decisions made at the individual level. This local white problem clamors for more attention but is often blissfully ignored. White parents in big SUVs adorned with “I’m With Her” or “Bernie 2016” bumper stickers choose not to invest in traditional public schools and support charters, magnets or other choice programs instead. Wealthy donors form dark money groups like the “Coalition for Kids” and back Meeting Street Academy to profit from the experiment of school choice on Black families and poor communities of color. White business owners push overpriced barbecue and Gullah-inspired cuisine that financially disenfranchises Black businesses from profiting in a system that was literally built upon the backs of enslaved people. With brunch crumbs on their Patagonia vests, many liberal whites can look around their beloved city and say without irony, “We are Charleston strong.”
Then, there are those we have entrusted to teach our children. White educators join predominantly white teacher associations like SC for Ed and cite Ellen as inspiration, but not Septima Clark. White teachers pay to join the anti-union Palmetto State Teachers Association that is historically linked to the segregationist politics of Marion Gressette and Strom Thurmond. These same white teachers post pictures of themselves celebrating Black history but still support school resource officers in their hallways or post “All lives matter” on social media. Marching 10,000 strong might squeeze a small pay raise from the legislature one day — but the racist underpinnings will remain intact.
The solution is quite simple, but too difficult to grasp in a paradise built upon the white aesthetic and the privilege it entails. The solutions are held by those who have been historically disenfranchised by this system and those who draw from the current of history that has resisted oppression. The solution that should be the heart of an education justice movement begins with reparations, abolishing supremacy in schools and empowering Black parents and teachers.
As I return to the land you all fly over — nearly 10 years after I drove to Charleston to join the frontlines of the battle — the lessons of John Brown and South Carolina will reverberate north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Our children and our schools depend on listening to that message wherever we may be.
Jon Hale is an education advocate and professor at the University of Illinois who previously worked at College of Charleston and University of South Carolina.