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Education Secretary Arne Duncan Challenges PNBC Delegates

Barrington M. Salmon | 8/17/2011, 8:42 a.m.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Pressing business elsewhere prohibited President Barack Obama from addressing several thousand delegates at the Progressive National Baptist Convention's (PNBC) gala in Northwest Washington, but his designee's message Wednesday evening stirred the crowd.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may not have had the gestures and cadences of a Baptist preacher but the images he painted of the dire state of education, and his repeated exhortations to those present to help reverse the downward spiral struck a nerve.

"Education is the civil rights issue of our generation. (It) is the most pressing issue facing America," said the 46-year-old Chicago native. "Education is a moral and economic imperative (and) it is the only way to reach a more equal and just society."

"See it this way: If we fail to educate our children, we perpetuate the problem. If you ride in the front of the bus and you can't read, you're still not truly free."

Duncan's message at the Marriott Wardman Hotel dovetailed neatly into the PNBC's focus on grooming the next generation of leaders. For five days, from Aug. 7-12, the PNBC's 5,000 delegates celebrated the organization's golden anniversary in the nation's capital. The Progressive National Baptist Convention grew out of a desire by founding members to confront the social and political upheaval that roiled the United States in the 1960s. Members, who were a part of the traditional African American National Baptist Convention, chafed under the leadership of those who were unable or unwilling to challenge the status quo.

PNBC members were intimately involved in the Civil Rights struggle and opposed conservative policies and practices in churches and the wider society that produced a tradition of racism and discrimination against African Americans. The PNBC was instrumental in ushering in radical and widespread social change across the country. Today, that work continues with the organization which has 2,000 churches and 2.5 million members globally.

"I'm so glad to see so many young people here," said Duncan. "No one can do that (give you and education) for you. You have to want this for yourself. There's nothing out there for you without an education. To all the young people here, work hard, get an education and good things will happen."

Duncan said education is a dividing line, with the disparities centered less around class and race, and more on educational opportunity.

"We have no good jobs today for high school dropouts," he intoned. "There are no stockyards and no steel mills. They are distant memories of a bygone era. We have to strengthen families and communities by enhancing higher education and improving trade and technical schools and colleges."

The Education Secretary spoke emphatically about the need for educators, parents, officials, lawmakers, and anyone associated with education to toss away the status quo - such as the one-size-fits-all scenario - to embrace new and innovative ideas and he called on them to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to provide the young with a quality education.

The clearest indication of how much the education landscape needs to be changed, Duncan said, is the school calendar.