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The time is now for a mass movement to change public schools, criminal justice system

David Evans, senior admissions officer at Harvard University shares his thoughts on a movement needed today

David Evans

Today, in our country, we must either keep our brother or he will assuredly keep us. He will keep us in fear, in debt, in silent shame or in a posture of embarrassment before the world.

Wrongs like slavery and Jim Crow were always embarrassments before the world to some Americans, but that embarrassment escalated in the two decades following World War II with civil rights activism and the advent of television and other visual media.

As a child, teenager and young adult, I lived through some of those embarrassments to our country such as the lynching of black fourteen-year old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi in August 1955; Mississippi. Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955; April 1959, when a Poplarville, Mississippi mob entered a jail through two levels of security, seized African American Mack Charles Parker, took him out, lynched him and threw his body into the Pearl River.

On August 28, 1963 we witnessed the “Great March on Washington” where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech while Washington, DC was still a Jim Crow city. Eighteen days later (Sept. 15, 1963) four black girls attending Sunday school were killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.

The next summer (June 1964), three civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi

A year later we witnessed the spectacle of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 where John Lewis and others were brutally beaten near the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

These ugly spectacles were not inconsequential and, as President John Kennedy acknowledged in one speech: “The fires of discord are burning in every city.” In fact irrepressible indignation erupted violently in Northern cities as early as 1964 and continued through 1968, in places like Harlem, Watts, Cleveland, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, D.C., etc., especially in April 1968 after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

It was in this national political atmosphere that I came to work in the Harvard College Admissions Office in the 1969-70 school year — on a “two-year leave of absence.”

I chose to stay beyond the “two years” because there was a great “changing of the guard” on this campus and in this country at that time. Moreover, Dean of Admissions Chase Peterson ’52 and the two deans who succeeded him, Fred Jewett ’57 and currently Bill Fitzsimmons ’67 believed — as I believe — a changing of the guard without a guarding of the change is movement without maintenance.

In recruiting and enrolling African Americans, the Harvard College Admissions Office has “guarded the change” and “maintained.” For example, before I began working in the office, Harvard and Radcliffe had enrolled fewer than 300 African Americans. Since I began, more than 5,000 have enrolled.

At no time has our country needed “maintenance” of change more than today because the median-age American, at approximately 37 years of age, has never seen a successful mass movement. The Vietnam War was over before that person was born in 1979 and apartheid in South Africa ended in 1994. Even the parents of that person can barely remember the Civil Rights Movement.

Without the experience of a successful mass movement, that median-age American can barely recognize the potential of a “changing of the guard,” much less “guard that change.” For example, women presidents of Brown, Harvard, Penn and Princeton don’t register as changes of the guard to him or her, and maybe not even an African American governor of Massachusetts or President of the United States.

We must not only help that median-age person recognize the changing of the guard and guarding of that change, but also help him or her identify and “keep their brother” from the massive problems of too many dysfunctional public schools, the voracious criminal justice system and the student loan debt that shackles our “best and brightest” who do manage to graduate from college.

Maybe it is time for the “wisdom of age” to sit down with the “vigor of youth” and reconstitute some mass movements to expose and change the public schools, hold the criminal justice system accountable and reform the unmanageable debt heaped upon our college graduates. In so doing, we will not only “keep our brother,” but also, perhaps, become a more principled nation.

David Evans is a senior admissions officer at Harvard University. Born in Arkansas, Evans studied electrical engineering at Tennessee State University and Princeton University. He has worked at Harvard since 1970.