Preserving Black History: HBCUs Rally Against Threats to Inclusive Education on 60th Anniversary of March on Washington

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are stepping onto the stage during this week’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, not just to honor the past, but to shed light on the pressing challenges facing the teaching of Black history across the nation.

These challenges come in various forms, ranging from the enactment of new state laws targeting critical race theory—an academic framework that examines the influence of systemic racism on laws and movements—to the growing number of book bans. Shockingly, nearly a third of the approximately 1,500 banned books this year alone delve into themes of race, racism, or feature characters of color, with four of the most prohibited books penned by authors of color, according to PEN America.

Florida, in particular, has become a battleground over critical race theory, sparking a contentious debate over educational standards. The state’s Board of Education recently approved controversial guidelines, including the mandate to educate students about the skills slaves acquired during slavery. This specific clause ignited a clash during the GOP presidential race, pitting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis against Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who criticized the move. Both figures are vying for the GOP nomination.

Clarissa Myrick-Harris, a professor of Africana Studies at Morehouse College and leader of the Committee to Commemorate the Atlanta Student Movement, emphasized the need to spotlight history and devise strategies to counter attempts to erase Black history. The Atlanta Student Movement, formed by college students in 1960, fought for civil rights and remains a testament to the ongoing struggle.

However, the struggle isn’t confined to Florida. According to a recent UCLA study, between 2021 and 2022, federal, state, and local governments introduced a staggering 563 measures aimed at restricting the teaching of race and racism. Of these, 241 have already been implemented, underscoring the persistent challenges faced by those advocating for comprehensive education.

Historically Black colleges and universities have consistently played a pivotal role in offering educational opportunities to Black Americans, and their participation in the March on Washington’s anniversary reaffirms their enduring significance. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Emeritus Director of Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies at Norfolk State University, highlighted the misinformed perceptions that some have held about the relevance of HBCUs, emphasizing the critical role they play.

Clarence Dunnaville, a 1954 graduate of Morgan State University and attendee of the March on Washington, vividly recalls the jubilant atmosphere of the event and the challenging journey he and others undertook to reach it. Dunnaville, who later became the first Black attorney to work for the IRS, expressed concerns about the potential erasure of the history he was part of.

Dunnaville acknowledged the power of HBCUs and the pivotal role that student-led organizations played in shaping progress over the last six decades. Despite the challenges, he stressed the importance of holding onto the accomplishments while confronting attempts to undermine them. In a rapidly evolving century, preserving the hard-won gains of the past remains an essential endeavor.

In the face of these threats, Historically Black colleges and universities continue to stand as pillars of resilience, determined to ensure that Black history is not only taught accurately but is also safeguarded from being obliterated. Their commitment to shaping an inclusive and accurate education for the generations to come is an enduring testament to the significance of the March on Washington and its continued relevance today.

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