As one of his final acts in office, President Obama established the Freedom Riders National Monument. Building upon the ‘Journey of Reconciliation,’ an integrated bus ride through the Upper South 56 years ago, the Freedom Riders sought to test if bus stations in the Deep South were complying with U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decisions.
On a fateful May 14, 1961, the first Freedom Riders group from Washington D.C, pulled into a Greyhound bus station in Anniston, Alabama—a site now protected for the future. There the riders, Black and White, were viciously attacked by a violent mob. As rocks were thrown, windows broken, and tires slashed, police officers belatedly arrived to clear a path.
Two cars pulled ahead that slowed the bus to a crawl and the vehicle’s slashed tires gave out and a flaming bundle of rags was thrown through one of the windows, causing an explosion with the riders still inside. The mob outside tried to prevent the riders from leaving before they were rescued by a Baptist minister.
The long reign of violence and legal and illegal discrimination left its mark on our society, leaving a poisoned legacy that persists to this day. However, the courage and determination of the Freedom Riders paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and voting rights legislation that helped bring reform.
Sadly, many inequalities and much prejudice still endure. This is not simply about societal attitudes, but also a result of both historic and present inequality. For decades, even after the end of formal segregation, the needs of urban youth and their families were neglected. Their lives began with few resources, which included a substandard public education.
The District of Columbia was no stranger to public educational neglect. Children with the most acute need for a high-quality public education were chronically underserved, with consequences that cast a shadow over a lifetime.
But a change came—this year is the 20th anniversary of chartered public schools opening in the District. In that time, they have proved their worth to parents. Charters now educate 46 percent of all students in public school, transforming the prospects of so many.
Importantly, this education reform provided choice for parents who did not have the means to move to access public education in a suburban area, or pay for private school. And the result has been an improvement both for students attending the thriving public charter school network, and those enrolled in the traditional system, D.C. Public Schools.
The on-time—within four years- high-school graduation rate, which involves tracking high-school students from entry into and graduation from high-school, was 72 percent for District public charter schools and 68.5 for DCPS this year. This is a big improvement from twenty years ago, when an estimated half of all high-school students failed to graduate—with all the avoidable consequences that involved.
D.C. public charter schools have led in the improvement of standardized test scores, and – more importantly – in innovation, enriched learning and parental and student involvement. Empowered by their ability to offer a tuition-free public education in which they can choose their own school curriculum and culture, while being held accountable for improved student performance, charters have been free to raise the bar for their students. All District students have benefited.
Providing the strong public education that is the birthright of every American will take our society forward in ways that we cannot foresee today. The courage that the Freedom Riders showed nearly a quarter of a century ago can still be channeled for all of our children—and move us forward.
Dr. Ramona Edelin is the executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools and a longtime civil rights activist.