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Bernice King: Atlanta Public Schools dropout rate is ‘appalling’

MLK’s youngest and former president Jimmy Carter kick off 50th anniversary of March on Washington with a round table on education

Bernice King was only an infant when her father delivered his famous “Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but she can recite its lines with authority. And so, welcoming civic leaders invited to the Carter Center for a discussion on education and civil rights, she said she would like to focus on the portion of the speech about the “red hills of Georgia.” Her father’s dream that one day “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood” seemed to be embodied in this gathering. And, she noted, "I might add, it includes also the table of sisterhood.”

Last night’s Carter Center gathering marked two kickoffs: the King Center’s 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington and a local debut of the “Sunday Supper” conversation series. The Suppers are organized by Points of Light and the HandsOn volunteer network founded by Atlantan (now senate candidate) Michelle Nunn, and sponsored, as attendees were reminded frequently, by Target; three feel-good Target ads were played during the introductory remarks.

Carter told the attendees that he owed his presidential career to the man who delivered the “Dream” speech. “I would not have been a viable candidate for president were it not for Martin Luther King Jr.,” he said. Carter and King never met; the former was elected governor three years after the latter’s assassination. But Carter referenced King’s work in his inaugural address as governor, stressing that the time for racism in Georgia was over, and riled dissenters by hanging MLK’s portrait in the Capitol. “He was transforming,” Carter said of King. “Especially for me personally, and for the country.”

The premise of the Sunday Supper events is simple: get a bunch of civic leaders in a room, feed them, and have them discuss a topic of concern in their community. Last night’s theme was education, and King, who’s made kids and young adults a focus of her work, was characteristically forthright.

The graduation rate in Atlanta Public Schools—just over 50 percent—is “appalling” she said, and should have the community outraged at a “9-1-1 level of alarm.” Rather, she said, Atlanta residents, “in one of the greatest, most progressive cities” are complacent while “in our front yard we have a serious issue.”

Bernice King moderated a discussion on education with a panel consisting of Doug Shipman, director of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Dione D. Simon, principal of the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy middle school, and C.T. Vivian, a veteran of the civil rights movement who was just awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Shipman reminded the audience that the theme of 1963 March being commemorated was jobs and freedom. The connection between economic justice and civil rights needs to be stressed, he said. “You cannot take apart the politics and the economics.”

Vivian, referring to his own work with gangs, said, “I am not as concerned about those in school as those who drop out.”

The evening wrapped up with a recitation of the “Dream” speech by Zaqary Asuamah, now a third-grader at the Museum School in Avondale Estates. (The clip above is from Zaqary’s performance back in second grade.)