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HBCU Presidents Stood Up for Civil Rights

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This past December, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) released two new videos in their series of oral history videos that link seasoned activists with emergent leaders. The Southern Education Foundation characterizes the HBCU presidents featured as the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.  The newest individuals in the series are: Norman Francis, the president of Xavier University of Louisiana and of note, the longest serving college president in the United States (1968 – current); and Benjamin Payton (1981-2010), the former president of Tuskegee University.  These two individuals have lead their institutions through times of triumph and turmoil and have remarkable stories to share with the public and HBCU students and alumni in particular.

Norman Francis talks about how to close the achievement gap in the United States and aptly gives our current President of the United States advice.  Francis notes that the major problem in America is not inequality but inequity.  All too often people equate these words but they are not the same.   To explain the difference, he uses an easy to understand example.  In Francis’s words “If the glasses are unequal, we are not going to achieve equality by pouring the same amount of water in each glass. We have to pour the glass of water equitably.”  He encouraged President Obama and his administration to focus on equity, not merely equality.  If this strategy is not use, change will not take place.

Francis also urges Americans to rethink their priorities around education.  He asks us all why we are willing to pay professional athletes and celebrities so much money but we are unwilling to pay the people who teach “our precious children” a decent salary.  We need to elevate the teaching profession, making it more desirable monetarily so that the best and brightest will be attracted to the profession.

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In his interview, Benjamin Payton explains that if we want to see change, we have to work with others – of all races and ethnicities – to make change.  He sees the road to our nation’s competitiveness being paved with cooperation among various parties.  As the nation becomes more diverse – with the country becoming majority minority by 2050 – Payton urges people to realize that an investment in students of color is an investment in the future.  Giving opportunity is not about giving people special privileges but about making the nation better and stronger by giving all its citizens opportunities.  Payton sees the key to opportunity as access to better K-12 education for all children and urges us to see the education of everyone’s children as a benefit to all of us.

Not only are these interviews important for their content, but they are excellent teaching tools for those interested in education, race in America, and leadership.  I would urge you all to take a look and listen to the words of these important leaders.

A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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