*You ought to read “Racial Divides?” first.
The talk at One Montgomery went well. To get the only down side out of the way first, the talk could only be about 20 minutes, with another 20 minutes for questions and answers. So it went really quick, but overall the audience was a very receptive one; they kind of made it easy.
I talked about the divisions in our community over the public schools, and not only over the current squabbles within our local school board. I began with the history of the 1950s and 1960s, beginning with Brown v. Board in 1954 and two subsequent reactions: failed bills in the state legislature proposing the abolition of all public schools, rather than integrating them, and the constant creation of “white academies,” including the school I attended from 1984-1992, Saint James School, which was a secular school founded by a Methodist church in 1955. I gave the extremely short version of the 1960s turmoil, including the 1960 sit-in by Alabama State University students, the 1964 Carr v. Montgomery Public Schools case, the creation of the Alabama Public School and College Authority by George Wallace in 1965, and then the final defeat of MPS in the Carr case, the creation of Auburn University at Montgomery, and the opening of Jefferson Davis High School, all in 1966-1967. So the groundwork was set forty years ago for community over education in Montgomery, on both the k-12 level and the post-secondary level.
I carried that discussion through my own personal experiences, attending a majority-black public school through fourth grade, a white academy from fifth through twelfth grade, and also the local arts magnet program at the nearly all-black Carver high school in eleventh and twelfth grades.
Finally as a reminder that the divisions have not been purely racial, I included a discussion of the evangelical movements of the 1990s and 2000s. One political hot-button issue of that time was prayer in schools, and many people in the religious Right began to regard public schools as “Godless” when mandatory prayer was disallowed by federal courts. This not only opened the gates for the evangelical mistrust of “activist judges” – which is a strong sentiment in Alabama – but also it created the initiative in some people to start church-based private schools as alternatives to public schools. In Montgomery, those often-tiny schools are abundant.
The Q&A went well. I had a good question about how the 1901 Constitution has affected all of the education problems, and another good one about how tenure affects teacher quality. One man, an older African-American preacher, and I disagreed openly about how prominent a fact race is in the side factors that are not overtly racial. He felt like they were racial in nature, while I believe they may or may not, on a case by case basis. But the disagreement was respectful, and we shook hands afterwards.
Public education is an issue no one can ignore. It affects everyone from employers seeking good job applicants to people who don’t want their lawnmowers stolen. Though I was lucky to have a sympathetic audience here, I still think the ideas expressed, by me and by those people making comments or asking questions, were valid concerns that have to be addressed, or we will all regret not doing it.