I cannot begin to express how ecstatic and humble I feel. I keep telling myself, family and friends how undeserving I feel to be the first recipient of the Sullivan and Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson Foundation Phoenix Award. There are so many people – people who paved the path … people who walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and made the march to Montgomery 50 years ago … people who are still alive and contributing … that deserve this award more than me.
Two weeks ago, I had the amazing honor and privilege to stand at the bedside of one of them: Dr. Joseph E. Lowery.
At 93, Dr. Lowery, although not feeling his best, is still a firecracker, still dynamic with the wit, charm and passion about issues for which he is known. In the short time I talked with him, it was like taking a college course on leadership, civil rights and citizenship all wrapped into one.
I told him about the award and my reservations about being the first recipient when there are men and women like him still around. He gave a gentle laugh and shook his head. He said the award recognizes my passion for children.
And he told me to accept the award and live up to the award. First, he said, by engaging our students, like the beautiful young men and women from CSK Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Atlanta International School who joined me in Selma this weekend. Dr. Lowery said you cannot let them continue on the path that they have been on and not let them be engaged about their future. Give them hope, he said.
And secondly, he said: Take that passion you have for students – don’t let the politics of Atlanta or Georgia, or anywhere else distract you from your mission to do right – and fight for our children.
I was so honored to be standing there at the Jackson House, a true touchstone of the Civil Rights movement, the humble home of Sullivan and Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson, who made their home available during the 1965 Voting Rights movement to give Civil Rights leader a safe and comfortable respite amid the struggle.
It’s a special place for me, as a Daughter of Selma. I come here, I see my parents, I see my friends from elementary, middle and high school, and I am refreshed, rejuvenated, and reminded that although much has been accomplished, much still needs to be done.
I don’t have to tell you that Selma—on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, holds and will forever hold, a special, if complex, place in the American consciousness for its role in the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. But, for me, Selma has always been in my heart and mind, holding me steady, serving as my true north – the compass that has allowed my career path to complete a full circle.
My Selma upbringing paved the way for me to take on what some have labeled the most challenging school district in America. If I had not been raised, educated and employed here in Selma, I don’t think I would have been fully prepared for the kind of work required of me in education, certainly not the kind of work for a school superintendent in an urban setting.
It helped me to tackle challenges with integrity, passion and grit that only Selma knows how to teach, courageousness in the face of adversity and recognition of realities about how much more we still have to overcome, and in some cases, do again. Selma helped me strive to build consensus and coalitions … often where there would have been none … and to understand when to lead, when to follow, and when to just tell naysayers and idle hands to get the heck out of the way.
It helped me at a very early stage of my career to determine exactly what it is I stand for and what I fight for. I live every day of my life without fear or worry because of traits of self-assurance and achievement my town and my family helped hardwire into me. I’ve invested in these traits and now use them as strengths to champion education for our APS children.
So I believe my job … the job of a community … must be to ensure that every student has access to a high quality education. With that high quality education, we have the power to break the cycle of poverty, the cycle of ignorance, the cycle of violence, the cycle of corruption. And, that happens because a high quality education also provides students with the skills to give them choices in life.
And as much as I am humbled by the award, I believe that is what I was raised to do when still a girl here in Selma, that is what Dr. Lowery told me to do.
Take my passion and fight for our children.
And I promise you now – as I promised Dr. Lowery two weeks ago – that I will fight to make things right for children and families again in APS.