Education Secretary Recalls Segregation

AP Education Writer

May 5, 2004, 12:48 PM CDT

WASHINGTON -- As a boy in rural Mississippi, Rod Paige and other black children played basketball outdoors on a dirt court with light cords running through it. The white kids had a gym. That's when he first saw what segregation meant: separate and unequal.

Paige was a junior in college when the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education almost 50 years ago -- May 17, 1954. From college dean and school superintendent to the nation's first black education secretary, Paige has built a career on Brown's legacy and a belief that education equalizes opportunity.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Paige, now 70, recalled the days of segregation and talked of Brown's relevance today, a time when studies show school integration is slipping in many districts and blacks still lag whites in achievement.

AP: Did (segregation) affect you in the sense that you began to think ... you were inferior to whites?

PAIGE: That was the clear message from the environment. But that message was countered in a most vigorous way by our parents. ... We knew that we were living in a segregated environment, but our parents made a big issue out of "You're as good as anybody else. In fact, education is the way to overcome all of this."

AP: You were in college at Jackson State University, a junior of 20 years old, when the Brown decision came down. What do you remember feeling at the time?

PAIGE: It was another Emancipation Proclamation. I mean, it was a magical moment. It was "Free at last, free at last." It was a celebration and hope for the future. All of a sudden, our whole hope for the future catapulted into a whole new realm. It turned out that was a naive idea, because then we launched into a period of formal resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. ... We didn't anticipate the vigor and voracity of the push-back from the system.

AP: When was the first time you attended school with white students?

PAIGE: At the University of Indiana (for graduate school).

AP: What do you recall about that experience?

PAIGE: I recall a burden, the burden of a responsibility for doing well. ... The embarrassment of not doing well would have been something I couldn't have faced with my parents and others. ... It was like a 100-yard dash; I felt like I was starting 20 yards from the starting line. In order to make that up, I had to put in more time.

So I kind of had a little philosophy: If those guys could get it done in two hours, I could get it done in four. When we get there, we'll be the same.

AP: How does being not just an educator, but a black man, affect how you approach this job?

PAIGE: I think that probably the best way I could express that would be to remind you of how Jackie Robinson felt integrating the major leagues in baseball. I think that's the case in almost every example -- there's an extra burden that you carry. It's not just whether you succeed or not. Because you realize that if you don't succeed, then you contribute to this feeling that African-Americans are not going to be able to do this very well.

AP: Many school systems have become more segregated. ... Does that concern you?

PAIGE: Integration is a necessary condition, but it's an insufficient condition. We know now that you can achieve integration and you still don't get what we were driving for in the first place, which is a quality education. So Brown v. Board of Education is a very important historical event that is a foundation and a requirement, but it doesn't finish the job. ...

The No Child Left Behind Act is the logical next step to Brown v. Board of Education, because (it) requires states to hold all children to the same high standards. That is a powerful concept that, for some reason, we don't seem to get. That's a major determinant of educational progress -- expectancy, expectancy.

AP: Bottom line, does it matter if a school has diversity as long as that school is providing a strong education to all of its kids?

Paige: There is something to be gained by us working together. ... But you can have diversity, and then you can be absent high standards, high level of expectancy, highly qualified teachers, sound pedagogy that's underpinned by science, parental options. ... You put your whole emphasis on diversity absent all those things, you are not going to get it done.

AP: The president has supported diversity but opposed race as a factor in (college) admissions, and you have as well. ... Did affirmative action help you at all in your career?

PAIGE: I don't want to be understood as not appreciating the advantages it has given any member of my community, or any citizen of the United States of America. But have I been admitted to a school because of my ethnic membership? I don't think so. Have I been advantaged in any way? I can't think of any. ...

When I grew up in Mississippi, here's a message that I heard in my community, that was embedded in me: Being advantaged or being disadvantaged simply and purely on the basis of your ethnic membership is wrong. That's racial discrimination. ... Now, that was embedded in me so strongly, it's hard to reverse that. ... I call it a matter of moral consistency.

That's one point. There's a second point. I reject in the most vigorous way any thought that I can't match up with you anyway. Even if I have to start a few yards back, I'm still going to outrun your backside.

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Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press

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