LOS ANGELES – As a boy, school board member George McKenna attended segregated schools, drank from “colored” water fountains, sat in the back of the bus and suffered through several racial barriers while growing up in New Orleans.
He also participated in the civil rights movement – including working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to battle injustice.
In fact, King was not yet a nationally known civil rights leader when McKenna, then a teenager, participated in his first demonstration protesting against a segregated movie theater that required black patrons to sit in the balcony.
Over the years, he says, things have changed for the better.
“I never thought I would live to see the election of a black president,” McKenna, now 74, said. Today “we celebrate progress and achievements. We also recognize the history and contributions of African-Americans.”
McKenna’s personal history informs a resolution to celebrate Black History Month, which the school board approved unanimously this week.
Board members Mónica García and Mónica Ratliff co-sponsored the resolution, which directs Superintendent Ramon Cortines to work with educators, librarians, schools and the community to celebrate black history. Collectively, L.A. Unified will celebrate February with programs, ceremonies and activities that generate in-depth discussions of the complex history of the U.S. and the legacy of African Americans.
“Civil rights mattered then, and they still matter now,” García said. “Reflecting on the struggles of the past re-energizes all of us for the fight to make sure all our children can read and write. We continue to demand educational justice for all.”
Board vice president Steve Zimmer added: “This year, Black History Month is especially important as we must make sure our classrooms are spaces for the dialogue that learning about history can generate.”
Board member Tamar Galatzan recalled that on Jan. 15, 1961, two years before King’s famous “I Have a Dream speech,” the slain civil rights leader spoke at Canoga Park High School after preaching at Woodland Hills Community Church.
“That night, he spoke of the troubled history of our nation, and his hope for a society [where] everyone could put aside their differences and live in harmony,” Galatzan recalled. “Through observances like Black History Month, we can start and continue the conversations that will allow us better understand one another and break the cycle of hate.”
The board’s resolution also recognizes contributions black Americans have made in this country and globally, in areas such as: music, art, literature, politics, athletics, education and diplomacy.
The document also cited milestones such as: Freedom Summer, a 1964 voter registration drive in Mississippi, and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial discrimination in schools, the workplace and other public places, such as buses, movie theaters and restaurants. These moves resulted in broad integration.
With this resolution, the school board recognizes “the respect that fellow citizens have for one another determines the values of our country and reinforces the premise that ‘Black Lives Matter’ – the rallying cry of recent protests against a spate of police killings of unarmed black boys and men.”
In addition, the resolution “acknowledges that all of the people of the United States are the recipients of the wealth of history given to us by black culture.”
“Every day, Dr. King’s legacy calls on us to do more for those among us whose need is greatest,” said board member Bennett Kayser. “As the generation that fought along with Dr. King passes, it is even more incumbent upon us to teach this lesson to the next generations.”