Veteran and youngster carry on fight for civil rights

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The proud heritage and bright future of the nation's bid to reclaim the promise of America were on display July 12 when teacher and union organizer Mark Levy, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights battles in the Deep South, shared the AFT convention stage with Asean Johnson, the 11-year-old boy who has become the face, voice and spirit of a no-surrender fight to keep strong public schools in Chicago.

Asean Johnson From left, CTU President Karen Lewis, Asean Johnson, Jitu Brown and President Weingarten. Photo by Michael Campbell.

Levy, one of almost 1,000 volunteers who taught in the Mississippi Freedom Summer schools in 1964, remembered the time as "one moment in a long and still ongoing movement [that] unfortunately is not over"—the struggle continues. That summer 50 years ago shaped not only the students who attended those schools, but also the young Americans who volunteered to teach classes in the Jim Crow South.

The essence of the curriculum at the schools "was getting the students to feel empowered and ask 'why?' " For teachers like Levy, who recently retired, that opportunity to foster inquiry in students whose abilities had been ignored in segregated schools was no less than the touchstone of his teaching career. When it comes to the battle for true civil rights today, "We, as teachers have the obligation to tell the narrative in a different way"—a continuing story that connects the fight for jobs, education, civil rights and justice.

"My job is now to pass the baton and the torch," the veteran teacher said as he introduced Asean Johnson, who stepped to the podium.

"Last year, I was the youngest speaker" at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, Asean said, "and now I'm a year older, just a little bit taller—and a lot more determined to fight forward."

The boy thanked his teachers, his family and his Chicago community for joining together not only to safeguard his schooling and opportunities in life, but also to fight so that all students have access to art, music, libraries and to vital school professionals like counselors and nurses.

"Now, we must take that fight to every city in America," Asean said to the cheers of delegates. "If we come together, we will win. Let's march together; let's fight together; let's work together. Let's reclaim the promise of America's schools together!"

[Mike Rose/photo by Michael Campbell]

July 12, 2014