By Sheryl Estrada
According to First Lady Michelle Obama, education in America should be viewed as a civil-rights issue.
On Feb. 20, Mrs. Obama hosted “Celebrating Women of the Movement,” a Black History Month panel discussion in the East Room of the White House.
“Like many of you, I believe that education is the single most important civil-rights issue that we face today,” Mrs. Obama said.
Many students attend “crumbling schools” that don’t have access to technologies or college preparation, and when children fall behind in school, they most likely fall behind in life, she explained. She also addressed the graduation rate of Black students.
“While we should be proud the high-school graduation rate for Black students is improving, it is still lower than just about any other group in this country,” Mrs. Obama said.
She also offered that the rate of college graduation for Black males has “flatlined.”
Mrs. Obama explained education could help solve issues like mass incarceration, poverty, racial profiling, voting rights and the “kinds of challenges that shocked so many of us over the past year,” which appears to be a reference to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers.
Leading up to her statement on education and civil rights, the First Lady described the struggles and triumphs of panelists who pursued education during the civil-rights era.
Award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault was the first Black woman to attend the University of Georgia, and Carlotta Walls LaNier was one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who integrated Little Rock Central High School. Federal troops were eventually sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to escort them.
“Once these young people made it inside the building, they were bullied, spat on, physically abused by their classmates,” Mrs. Obama said of the Little Rock Nine. “But Carlotta and the other students kept showing up, and kept studying and kept working hard.”
After she graduated high school and college, LaNier started her own company. She is President of the Little Rock Foundation, which provides scholarships for young people.
“Her first night on campus, she heard a chant ‘2-4-6-8, we don’t want to integrate,'” Mrs. Obama said of Hunter-Gault’s experience at the University of Georgia.
She was suspended and sent home by the school out of concern for her safety, the First Lady explained. Hunter-Gault returned to complete her studies and graduate. She has had a successful career as a journalist.
“Those are just two of countless stories about how folks who came before us stayed hungry for their education and paved the way for those who came after them, including me and so many in this room,” Mrs. Obama said. “And today, thanks to their sacrifice, there are no angry mobs gathering outside our schools. Nobody needs a military escort to get to class, but that doesn’t mean that our children don’t still face struggles when it comes to education.”
The First Lady encouraged young people in the audience to learn from the victories of the panelists.
“That means going to class every dayevery day,” she said. “No matter what obstacle life may throw your way, go to school. Go to the bad school that you have. Go to school.”