A Poor People’s Campaign for Education Reform? What We Can Learn from LBJ and MLK

On April 11, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sat in front of a one-room schoolhouse in Stonewall, Texas — the rural setting where he received his formative education — and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). By his side was his former teacher, an elderly white woman bedecked in pearls and cat-eye glasses, and a group of Mexican-American former students he had taught in the Texas border town of Cotulla. This framing was no accident: the undercurrents of Civil Rights policy were in the air as Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the previous summer. And to further spotlight race equity in the ESEA, the date was selected to fall nearly 100 years to the day that the Civil War concluded.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965. Photo by Frank Wolfe / LBJ Library

Johnson was staunch about his commitment to education. In a March 1965 conversation with newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Johnson said: “Don’t ever argue with me. I’ll go a hundred million or a billion on health or education….Education and health. I’ll spend the goddamned money.” With ESEA’s role in providing significantly expanded resources (like library books, special education centers, and college scholarships) to vulnerable students, Johnson served as a human bridge between underserved populations: rural students, minorities, and immigrants. Looking at Johnson’s cleverly staged ESEA photo makes me think there are again opportunities for underserved student interests to unite in their demand for access to educational and economic equality. Identifying the intersection of class interests — as LBJ did — might have powerful political ramifications for the U.S. school system. 

A few years after the signing of the ESEA, Martin Luther King, Jr. carried the racial and economic unity torch forward. In 1968 he initiated the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought economic justice for the American poor. The first march of the Campaign included an interracial group of protestors — and would be King’s last. At his famous speech directed at striking Memphis sanitation workers, he urged:

We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.

But what if the photo opp Johnson arranged in Stonewall or the Poor People’s movement King envisioned stepped off the pages of history? What would a united populist movement for education and economic equality look like? How would it affect the classrooms our children fill each morning and the neighborhoods they return to each afternoon? As schools begin de facto resegregating, how might a united front across all underrepresented classes and underfunded schools provide a more equal education for all?

The educational plight of poor students — including rural whites, blacks, and immigrants — has more in common than a surface glance would suggest. The American Psychological Association’s “Education and Socioeconomic Status” factsheet identified educational barriers that poor students face, including: underfunded schools, fewer library resources, less qualified teachers, and less home literacy resources (including books, toys, and tutors). Poor students of varied races can be united in linguistic barriers to success: even those fluent in English may not speak “standard English” and are pressured to abandon their native language or accent for college and career success. That success, if it comes, is hard won: if poor students do pursue higher education, they’re usually the first in their families to do so, leading to difficulty navigating the college environment, lack of awareness about financial aid and support services, and ultimately only a 40% likelihood of completing a degree in six years.

As Professor Derrick Bell (the first black law professor at Harvard to receive tenure) argued, the Brown v. Board of Education decision succeeded in striking “separate but equal” legality because the interest of whites (wanting to respond to Cold War Communist propaganda bemoaning American race relations) and the interest of blacks (seeking racial justice) converged. Bell argued that reform benefitting people of color came easier when it benefited whites as well, rather than waiting for majority consensus on a moral imperative.

While pure moral conviction should motivate efforts to improve education for all students, “interest convergence” can provide a backdrop for real change in today’s school climate. For instance, the convergence of educational barriers might inform programs that would support economically disenfranchised students of all races: things like school choice, teacher stipends and increased professional development for high-need schools, wraparound supports to enable degree completion, and mentoring programs for first-generation college students.

Perhaps we should take a cue from Johnson’s ESEA photo opp and MLK’s last march to look at the common barriers that rural, black, and immigrant students face — so we can lift all students out of poverty and into educational opportunity. 

Jennifer Babisak is an intern on Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.