Wendell Griffen grew up in Delight, a small town in southwest Arkansas. But as far as education, it was no delight.
Griffen – formerly a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals and now pastor of New Millennium Church – was bused to elementary school and initially to a high school in Okolona, several miles from his home. He eventually graduated from Delight High School, only a couple of miles from his home.
“From 1957 to 1965, Delight High School buses passed my home every day and I never saw Delight High,” he said. “That was 11 years after Brown vs. The Board of Education (a Supreme Court ruling that made illegal “separate but equal schools” for African-Americans and whites). I did not have a single black teacher in grades 10-12. I had no role models.”
Griffen talked about historic and current educational issues for African-Americans in the South as part of a “Sweet Justice” series on social issues recently at Second Baptist Church in Little Rock.
As a young student growing up in the South, and as a judge, he’s seen the problems firsthand.
He began his presentation with a haunting history lesson; he ended it by snapping his fingers to the recorded sounds of lively New Orleans jazz. He then offered a pastoral perspective on a solution: “We need to go from blues to boogie.”
He talked about an “achievement gap” between African-Americans and whites present from the time slaves were introduced to this country.
“Americans did not intend to educate black people,” he said, noting that a lack of education was a major tool to keep African-Americans in slavery. “Black people are the only people who came to these shores who were legally prohibited from being educated.”
As part of an achievement gap, he said African-American students in the South often had no role models in teachers and administrators. In predominantly white schools, they were isolated and denied leadership roles in most activities.
He said black students were subjected to uneven disciplinary measures and pandered to for athletic abilities but penalized for academic ability. “The parents of white kids didn’t like it when black kids were challenging the white kids who were at the top of the class,” he said.
Griffen cited Little Rock Central, one of the most famous high schools in America that brought racism and desegregation to the forefront of American history in 1957. Central (named at the time Little Rock Senior High) was built in 1927 to accommodate 3,000 students and had a stadium that was one of the best in the area at the time. It was built with taxpayer funds and hailed upon completion as the largest and most beautiful high school in the country.
Dunbar High School, for African-Americans, was supposed to be Central’s equal. It never was. Griffen said public funds were diverted from Dunbar to build Little Rock Central’s stadium. Dunbar was built only with foundation grants and private funds. It never had a stadium.
He used that as an example of how parents and grandparents have given up on equality in the public education system.
“If you have a painful experience or problem, you expect your children to have one,” he said. “And if you have to work two jobs to put food on the table, you can’t go to school events.”
He noted there is an overemphasis on athletic achievement in schools today and, from his experience as a judge, most people in prison do not have a high school diploma, thus creating a pipeline into the criminal justice system.
“The problem kids are often sent to alternative schools, which is really a fancy way to say ‘prisons in public schools,'” Griffen said. “We are told the way to solve crime problems is to build more prisons. That does nothing to close the gap between public schools and prisons.”
He said charter schools, which receive public money without many of the rules and regulations of regular public schools, are not necessarily the answer.
“Most charter schools are less racially diverse, and they are not solving segregation but are a form or re-segregation in the name of academic improvement,” he said.
Griffen said the problem is really foundational.
“Problems occur when we try to fix the problem outside of the home address,” he said. “And the bureaucracy of our educational system would make a crazy person seem like they were sane. Where else in corporate America would you put your least-experienced people in the most challenging situations? But our least-experienced teachers always seem to go to schools with the greatest needs.”
He said his congregation is taking a missional approach to the problem. Many of New Millennium’s members (some former teachers and administrators) are taking on as a mission project an underdeveloped elementary school in an underprivileged and high-crime area around the church. He said none of the church members has a child in the school.
“It is not how large a congregation is, but how willing its people are, in the light of Christ, to make a difference,” he said. “I refuse to believe people motivated by God’s grace and truth cannot redeem public education. I believe in the power of resurrection – that just because there is a crucifixion, you don’t necessarily have to find a corpse. I believe Christians, who bear part of the responsibility for the situation, need to be a part of redeeming it. We should challenge public education rather than abandon it.”
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.