By Deborah Gist
On religious holidays, so many of us have family and faith community practices of rereading stories related to that holiday.
On Independence Day, I’m not alone in the practice of rereading the Declaration of Independence. Many of us also take time out of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to reread selections from his writings and speeches. This year, as always for me, that included “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and, his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
I also had the chance along with many other Tulsans to experience Tulsa student ReShayla Paige Tucker beautifully presenting the “I Have a Dream” speech as well as hearing the keynote address of the Rev. Dr. M.C. Potter who highlighted many of Dr. King’s poignant and powerful words.
For me this year, one sentiment weighed heavily. I noticed that I was not alone. This year, I saw much more attention being paid by my White friends and colleagues to the concept of the “White moderate” that Dr. King expressed in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
You likely know it well, but I’d like to share his words. He was, after all, an incredible writer and speaker:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the White moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the White moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
His words raise the importance of urgency, the inevitability of disruption that comes with change and the need for those of us who are not people of color to be vocal and active in seeking racial justice for our Black and Brown brothers and sisters. This weighed even more heavily on me this time—this year—than in previous readings, and I noticed that I wasn’t alone in that.
I can only speak for myself, of course, but I imagine that many others may have the same reasons that I had. We have an urgent need right now for strong words of condemnation of racist commentary and ideology. We have a need for action to combat racism and other actions and words that limit the full rights and human experience of all those who are not in privileged positions.
Sometimes that is obvious, as it was when self-proclaimed Nazis marched in American cities in 2017. It is also clear in the uptick in the activities and the emboldened behavior of White supremacists.
It is, however, necessary—perhaps even more so—when racism is less explicit. When it’s couched in terms that are code for those in the White supremacist communities or excused away as misunderstandings or misinterpretations.
It is also less explicit when it is not racism per se, but rather each of our own implicit biases that go unexamined.
We are working hard—urgently—in Tulsa Public Schools to improve the educational experiences of all students and to close achievement gaps and other disproportional results for our Black, Hispanic and Native students.
We have also, as I hope you know, embraced equity as a core value, which is evident in our academic work, but also includes an examination of biased and inequitable practices more broadly in our system.
That work is all important and must continue with vigor and with enthusiasm.
But it isn’t enough to work for improvement in educational outcomes. It isn’t enough to examine the systemic racism in our system. It also isn’t enough to understand and work on our own implicit biases. While it all matters, it isn’t enough.
We have to actively fight racism.
We must stand up.
We must speak out.
We must vote.
We must confront.
We must march.
We must make change.
Tonight, I want to publicly declare my own recommitment to this work.
I will fight racism. I will fight racism in all its forms.
The future of our beautiful, diverse country—even with the contradictions of action that created wealth on the backs of so many—was fundamentally built upon a foundation of equal rights for all. And we must make that true.
All across this city—this country and the world for that matter—children of all ages are watching. They’re watching me. They’re watching you. They’re watching TV, print and social media. They are watching us and they see.
They see what we’re fighting against. They see what we’re fighting for. They see what we are willing to stand up to confront, and they see when we fail to do so. They hear the language used and they see the way in which we treat one another.
Our children are watching.
And people are still waiting.
So, to my Black, Hispanic, Native and Asian colleagues, friends and family; to our teachers and principals; to our students; to all people of color as well as others who are disenfranchised by our systemic inequities and by outright discrimination, I say this:
I will lead for change.
I will fight.
I will fight with my work.
I will fight with my words.
And, if necessary, I will fight by whatever means necessary to combat those who want to keep you from experiencing your full rights as an American and as a human being.
This post is adapted from Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist’s speech at the Tulsa Public Schools board meeting on January 16, 2018.
Deborah Gist is the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools and former Ed Commissioner in Rhode Island. She started her career in education as an elementary school teacher for several years, eventually moving into administration.