In celebration of Black History Month this year, we'd like to take a look at the important role that one of the most influential groups of working people in the United States has had in the fight for equality for African Americans—teachers. From its beginning in 1916, the AFT has been on the forefront of organizations fighting for equality for African Americans in the U.S.
AFT formed in 1916 in Chicago. It was one of the first educational organizations to allow African American members. In 1918, the federation called for equal pay for African American teachers, the election of African Americans to local school boards and for compulsory school attendance for African American children. Before it had even held its second convention, AFT issued its ninth local charter to the all-black Armstrong-Dunbar High School teachers in Washington, D.C. The AFT newsletter at the time welcomed the new members gladly, noting that black teachers "were especially in need of whatever assistance could be given not only to the teachers themselves, but to the development of educational opportunities…throughout the country."
In 1919, AFT called for equal educational opportunities for African American children. The next year, it formally petitioned Congress to drastically improve funding for Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. A decade later, it called for the social, political, economic and cultural contributions of African Americans to be taught in public schools. Beginning in the 1930s, AFT started refusing to hold its conventions in locations that were segregated or discriminated against African Americans. The 1938 convention in Cincinnati was moved after the convention hotel required black participants to use the freight elevators. In 1963, AFT moved its entire convention out of Florida, where it was scheduled to be, so its members didn't have to travel and lodge in the Jim Crow South.
In the 1950s, AFT got even more aggressive in pursuing racial equality. It stopped chartering segregated locals in 1951 and, in 1953, amended its constitution to say, "No charter of the AFT, which defines or recognizes jurisdiction on the basis of race or color, or permits the practice of such jurisdiction, shall be recognized as valid, and the practice of any such local in limiting its membership on account of race or color shall render its charter void." When Brown v. Board of Education came before the Supreme Court in 1954, AFT was the only education organization to file an amicus brief on behalf of desegregating schools. Three years later, AFT expelled all locals that refused to desegregate, even though this meant the loss of more than 7,000 members.
During the 1960s, AFT ran more than 20 Freedom Schools in the South to supplement the inadequate education offered to African American students. In 1963, AFT actively supported the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and continued to support the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. In 1965, it supported the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as part of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. After supporting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, AFT lobbied for the extension of the act in 1982, activating many members as volunteer support for the campaign. In the 1980s and beyond, while AFT would continue its efforts to support equality for African Americans outside the classroom, it also focused on improving opportunities inside the classroom. From educating teachers in a rapidly changing racial and social environment to seeking to close the black male education gap, AFT has been on the forefront of advocating for better education and opportunity for African Americans for 100 years.
In more recent years, the federation has focused on several key issues in its continued dedication to improving the lives of African American teachers and students:
- Reducing suspension rates and breaking the school-to-prison pipeline for young black males.
- Radically increasing the percentage of college- and career-ready young black males.
- Developing culturally competent educators, student, and education systems.
- Increasing access to educational opportunity—particularly early childhood education, career and technical education, and higher education.
- Increasing access to and preparation for higher-paying jobs.
- Addressing inequities in taxation and revenue-generating policies.
- Incorporating restorative justice practices into school discipline codes.
- Combating the culture of low expectations that often hampers students.
- Keeping neighborhood schools intact and making them the focal point and heart of their communities.
- Ensuring robust teaching environments by fighting the culture where testing replaces quality instruction.
- Maintaining public funding for public schools and fighting for equitable funding.
- Supporting struggling students by advocating for smaller class sizes and quality early childhood education programs.
- Ensuring there is a quality teacher in every classroom.
These steps are part of a bigger picture and program that follows in the long tradition of America's teachers fighting on behalf of their African American colleagues and students.