January 25, 2013

Recovered history: The Modern Strivers

Every so often a reader asks about something your editor hasn't thought about in years. For example, the Modern Strivers, a 1960s example of student activism in a DC public school that would be hard to find today. Here are some of our stories:

CAPITOL EAST GAZETTE, FEB 1968 - A group of Eastern High School students, calling themselves the Modern Strivers, have begun a drive for increased academic and personal freedom at the school. Following a successful boycott of the Eastern cafeteria, the Strivers won an agreement from principal Madison Tignor to hold a referendum on a proposed student bill of rights drawn up by the group. Among the rights demanded were: freedom of dress, freedom to wear political buttons and to publish papers without censorship, freedom to organize groups, freedom to protest grievances, and freedom to listen to classroom speakers free of any prior censorship. The bill of rights also sought freedom for students to choose all their non-required courses. At a news conference last month, leaders of Strivers expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of education at Eastern and were particularly critical of the lack of a Negro history course at the school.

CAPITOL EAST GAZETTE, MAR 1968 - One by one the citizens stepped to the beef box at Hine Jr. High School on Feb. 7 to register their complaints, requests, and demands with an impassive school board. The meeting was one of a series of neighborhood sessions being held by the board. . . The Modern Strivers from Eastern High were there. . . Several groups called for a halt in school construction until citizen participation and facilities for new teaching techniques could be incorporated into the planning. ("Almost traitorous, " snorted board member Benjamin Alexander at one such proposal.) . . . Several members of the Black Student Union hit "Negro History Week" ("The history taught at our schools is racist, " said one) and complained that the school board "had gotten a honkie to run our school system. " (One nearby spectator claims she heard school superintendent William Manning ask a board member "What's a honkie?") . . .

The Modern Strivers, in their testimony, argued that a committee of students under professional counseling should be permitted to recruit and hire teachers for Eastern. The four representatives of the group, led by junior Gregory Taylor, also urged that a board of parents, teachers and students be established to hire the successor to principal Madison W. Tignor, who retires this year. And they claimed to have the signatures of over 500 students "clearly stating that they are not getting the best education possible. " In addition, the group presented a plan to establish a 'Freedom School at Eastern, which would teach black history and black culture.

TESTIMONY OF GREGORY TAYLOR, MODERN STRIVERS - I am a student at Eastern High School. I'd like to read a caption from the Washington Post. This story appeared on January 13th and was about the Eastern student's protest. Eastern's principal, Madison W. Tignor, said in this article and I quote: "The students have no right to be disappointed in the school as a whole just because the reading scores are low. They don't take into account the odds we're working against. . . We have every kind of student at this school. Some come from fine professional homes, but we have many from other kinds of homes, you know."

I, myself, come from one of the other homes, my parents are not professional so what do you do with me? Am I inferior because I am not from a professional background? I, myself, believe that it is because you do not want me to be a professional person. Last year I wrote a letter of protest to a faculty member. The faculty member responded to my letter by saying, "You need to go back to the first grade because of the misspelled words. A first grader could have presented it better than you presented it to me."

My feeling about what she said was if I'm down and I want to get up, she is going to make it as difficult as possible for me to get up. I am a 19-year-old junior and too old to go back to elementary school, so what do you do? You give the so-called basic student, me,- anything - just enough to get me out of the way. I have been officially labelled basic since the first grade and I'm still unofficial basic now. As an example of this, I have been trying to go to college. But this is the program they gave me at the beginning of the year: 1st period, gym; 2nd period, applied math; 3rd period, lunch; 4th period, English; 5th period, U.S. history; 6th period, cooking; and 7th period, wood shop. I have had courses like cooking and woodwork all my life. In place of these courses, I could have taken a foreign language and a meaningful science course to help prepare me for college. But I know the answer now. I must depend on myself and not on the school system.

CAPITOL EAST GAZETTE, APR 1968 - Madison W. Tignor, principal of Eastern High School, went on extended leave last month following the revelation that he had written a Pennsylvania draft board requesting removal of the draft deferment of one of his teachers - "as a patriotic gesture." Shirley O. Brown, who has been assistant principal at Eastern since 1963, was named acting principal in Tignor's place. The school administration also wrote English teacher J. G. Lord Jr. 's draft board and requested that Lord's deferment be reinstated. "What he did is contrary to school practice, " said assistant superintendent George R. Rhodes, speaking of Tignor's action. Tignor's letter followed increased activity by a militant student group called the Modern Strivers, which Lord had been advising. The Strivers, who have demanded major reforms in both educational and administrative policies at Eastern, have been the subject of considerable publicity in recent weeks. They have pressed their fight in sit-ins, walkouts, news conferences, and testimony before the School Board. The Washington Teachers' Union has demanded that Tignor be fired. Said Modern Strivers president Gregory Taylor of the principal's letter to the draft board, it "wasn't a very nice way to handle the situation."

[Shortly after this story appeared, Washington erupted in major rioting following the death of Martin Luther King]


dawndba said...

Wow. I can't believe I found this. I was a senior at Eastern during the time the Modern Strivers began. I vividly remember the spirited discussions over the use of the term "black." It was my first introduction to "Black Power," in the sense that until then, it had only been something in the news.

But, the Modern Strivers brought it to our door. What they advocated seemed to come out of the blue (in our own setting, not on the national stage), so there was resistance, and I must say that to some extent, I was a part of that. I simply had never thought of my race in political terms, and this was my introduction. In fact, I don't recall that I ever really thought of my race at all. When you live in "Chocolate City," and are surrounded by people that look like you--- and you are a self-absorbed teenager--- it's just not something you think about.

The idea of going from the term "Negro" to the term "black," a term which we had learned all our lives to hate, was difficult. It took a while for me to understand that they were not talking about the actual color of our skin. Since I would be considered light brown (but had never had the occasion to think of myself in terms of my actual color), being called black simply made no sense to me. Once I understood that it was political rather than descriptive, that took getting used to also.

What did I, whacky a 17-year-old kid on her way to college know about political race issues? Well, I soon learned in college, and thus began a lifelong quest for equal justice under law. That college experience is why I googled the Modern Strivers. I was part of the nascent Black Power movement on my small Ohio college campus and 45 years later we have decided to write about it.

That quest the Modern Strivers began took me to law school, to eventually teaching law and writing the first Employment Law textbook for businesses, (primarily about workplace discrimination) that has been #1 in its field since it was published over 20 years ago; authoring a Legal Environment textbook, The Legal, Ethical, and Regulatory Environment of Business in a Diverse Society, (both for McGraw-Hill Pub. Co); founding a diversity consulting business; and writing innumerable articles and delivering innumerable talks on these issues.

45 years later, after my 1968 introduction to these issues by the Modern Strivers, I am retiring in a few months, but owe my entire career and quest for equality and social justice to the brave young men and women of the Modern Strivers who forced me to think beyond my surroundings.

Greg Taylor said...

I was searching the internet for news about the Modern Strivers because my father, Gregory Taylor was one of the founders. Since his death in 2006 I've been trying to learn more about that time in his life. Thanks for posting this. Are there any other Strivers around that I could speak to to learn more about the organization?

SAM SMITH said...

Great to hear from you Greg. Send me an email at ssmith@igc.org and I'll mail you the name of the one I remember who I believe is still around - Sam