“You were created for such a time as this,” attendees of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color Conference were told – or, rather, challenged – as they listened to the conference’s keynote talk. The inspiring voice belonged to John Jackson Ed.D. ’00, chief policy officer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“These are the best of times and these are the worst of times,” said Jackson at the March 4 gathering, paraphrasing the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” “For many of us these are the best of times, but for too many children across this nation, they’re having what [poet] Paul Dunbar called ‘A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in, a minute to smile and an hour to weep in.’
“Our challenge,” continued Jackson, “is to identify how, indeed, we will address the challenges for those … [still enduring] the worst of times.”
Jackson then led the audience through some highlights of Civil Rights history, noting triumphant outcomes in the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education case, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, before saying, “These are all victories, and while we have won many battles, tonight we have to reflect on the fact that we’re still losing the war.”
Returning to his earlier reference, Jackson said, “We’re at a point in our nation that we’ve got to individually reflect and recognize that we’re living in the tale of two cities.” And he noted several key inconsistencies: more African Americans in corporate America along with disparities in education; the rise of Latino populations and the persistence of Latino health and educational challenges; the increase in casino revenue for Native Americans, coupled with severe social inequities.
“Many of us today are sleeping through the revolution,” said Jackson. “We sat down at a time of Brown v. the Board of Education. We sat down during the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And now we’re waking up in the ‘Bushes.’ We’re waking up when civil rights are actually being rolled back and we’re asking, ‘Where is Martin? Where is Malcolm? Where is John Kennedy?’”
“The greatest American citizens are those willing to give their today for our tomorrow,” said Jackson, calling upon audience members to work on behalf of future generations.
Jackson left the audience with three exhortations. One, to represent all students, not just the good students: “We’ve got to represent even those who might have the 2.0 [grade point average], the student who has been suspended maybe once or twice, those individuals who find themselves in the gray areas of life, not knowing what capacity they have.”
He also asked his audience to recognize the particular role each of them can play. Some people are charismatic leaders and others are laborers. But, he emphasized, all roles are critical to the overall success of the endeavor. “Each of us plays a role as a link in a much larger chain,” said Jackson, “and have the ability to change things.”
Finally, “We’ve got to keep the faith,” he said, “because it’s not going to be easy to do what we have to do.”
Jackson was part of the fourth annual Alumni of Color Conference, a student-organized and student-run conference that aimed to “facilitate reflection, action, and change within individuals, institutions, and communities.” The theme of this year’s two-day conference was “Growth, Strength, and Action: Honoring Our Commitment to Individuals and Communities of Color.”