Ex-Education Secretary Rod Paige credits King’s speech for helping him achieve his dream
By CARL CAMPANILE
August 28, 2013
He was a dispirited kid living in rural Mississippi before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech a half century ago that altered the course of his life.“I remember the speech like it was yesterday,” said Rod Paige, who served as the first black secretary of education under President George W. Bush.
“The King speech is one of the seminal events that influenced my life and philosophy. The civil-rights movement absolutely was a factor in helping me achieve my dream.”
Paige, now 80 and living in Houston, was a 30-year-old football coach and instructor at his alma mater, Jackson State College, an all-black school, when King delivered his historic address.
It was an era of state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination that would never be forgotten by those who lived through it.
Paige admitted that he was angry growing up in Monticello, Miss., where Jim Crow laws oppressed blacks.Fortunately, he lived in a strong household that valued education — his father was a principal and his mother would obtain books for black students who didn’t have school libraries.
“I grew up at a time when things were really bad for black people. I had a pretty dim view of our society. We were living in two worlds. There was total segregation. It was clear to us that African-Americans were not full citizens of the United States of America”
Paige recalled.“I was angry because the white kids’ school had a gym — and we didn’t. They had books — and we didn’t. I had to sit in the corner of a balcony to see a movie. I couldn’t use the same water fountain as white kids. The message was right in your face. And the message was, ‘You don’t count very much.’ ”
He said King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was the catalyst that accelerated passage of civil-rights laws that began to shatter barriers for black Americans.“Dr. King had expressed to the world our issues. People who were on the fence began to see things from our point of view. It made the world speak up to correct the injustice,” he said. Paige also was a successful head football coach at three colleges — including Jackson State, and turned down offers to coach in the NFL.
“The King speech was so uplifting. It felt like the world was going to start over for African-Americans.”
He spoke of three killings in Mississippi that both outraged and terrorized blacks: the execution of Willie McGree in 1951; the lynching of 14-year-old Emmet Till in 1955, and the assassination of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers in June of 1963 — two months before King’s speech.
Amid the cruelty, Paige excelled as a star football player and top student in segregated schools. It wasn’t until he attended Indiana University for graduate studies that he had a chance to mingle with white students.
But Paige said America has come a long way on race relations in a short period of time.
The former teacher-in-chief gave the United States a grade of B for advancing civil rights — and pointedly recognized the progress made in his native Mississippi.
He said discrimination still exists, but described it as “episodic,” not government-sanctioned and systemic.“There are opportunities out there. The doors are open now. The ceilings are broken,” he said.
He said President Obama’s election — as well as his own success — provide powerful lessons that black people are prospering as productive and equal citizens in 21st century America.
While celebrating the racial progress, Paige — who helped craft the federal No Child Left Behind Law — said there’s more work to be done.
He said if King were here today, he would agree that “closing the racial achievement gap in education is the civil-rights issue of our time.
”Education, said Paige, can help overcome the cycle of poverty and dysfunction that has held back many minorities.
King would likely call Paige a “drum major for justice” — dedicating his life to helping provide better educational opportunities to children, particularly minorities in poor urban areas.
Before becoming education secretary, Paige made a name for himself as superintendent of the Houston school district. Previously, he was dean of the college of education at Texan Southern University.