Commentary

Opportunity for all

MLK and the Poor People's Campaign show the way forward for supporting HBCUs

Updated: February 26, 2014, 2:37 PM ET
By Domonique Foxworth | Special to ESPN.com

Dominique FoxworthAP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariNFLPA president Dominique Foxworth says HBCUs, like all institutions that help provide opportunity for Americans, are worth supporting.

Editor's note: The following is National Football League Players Association president Domonique Foxworth's response to Jason Whitlock's column about the need to support historically black colleges and universities. You can find that column here.

First, thank you for addressing issues broader than sports and inviting me to respond.

I don't think the advancements born of the civil rights movement or subsequent social progress in the arena of racial inequality or racial injustice is about perfecting white people.

It's about pushing our society, which we all share, to live up to the demands of justice.

You are absolutely right that a consequence of Dr. King's death was the mischaracterization of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, I think you may also be a bit guilty of mischaracterization in your assessment of the duty of and responsibility for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. led the Poor People's Campaign, in part to agitate for a basic minimum income or full employment for all Americans. Not just black Americans.

If you are going to credit Dr. King with orchestrating the movement, then you should be clear that, to Dr. King, the movement was not solely about advocating for racial equality and justice, but also to encourage more expansive forms of political, social and economic equality and justice for everyone.

This is not an insignificant distinction. King thought that the civil rights movement carried the seeds for the ethical redemption of America as a whole. This could not help but require all of us to live up to the demands of justice. And, more importantly, require us to work together to rearrange the basic structure of society.

But instead of re-arranging society, a "separate but equal" society was established, with HBCUs at the pinnacle of education for black Americans.

I completely agree with your point about integration creating a pathway for a small percentage of blacks to achieve the "American dream" through assimilation. Yet, allowing formal segregation at all levels of education, including HBCUs, was not a viable option, either, at least from my perspective.

But it is one thing to criticize the ideal, and another to criticize its implication. If you're doing the former, it seems like you have to end up endorsing some form of segregation, either forced or voluntary. I would hope this is not your intent, because that strategy has no foreseeable positive ending for our values of democracy, equality and justice.

[+] EnlargeMartin Luther King Jr.
AP Photo/Charles E. KellyIn early 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was planning the Poor People's Campaign to address economic injustice for all Americans.

If black Americans focused our support solely on HBCUs, or we only hold ourselves accountable to ensure the opportunities provided by HBCUs continue to be available, we're perpetuating a type of self-segregation.

HBCUs were the only option for blacks, at the time. Fortunately, things are different now.

Unfortunately, one of the by-products of desegregation is that the pipeline of top black students was no longer being funneled exclusively to HBCUs. We have choices.

I agree that the deterioration of HBCUs is sad and unfortunate. Since that is the basis for your piece we agree on the core of this discussion, but for very different reasons. I feel like you are wrongly focused on the "B" in HBCU and under-emphasizing the "H."

Amazingly, despite the obstacles they face, a few HBCUs have produced the talents you rightly celebrate. These institutions were not created primarily to be comparable to elite universities, but instead, their history has always been tied very closely to the project of "equivalent" education.

These institutions were borne of the need to provide an education for ex-slaves, and they have survived as an attempt to correct for the educational inequities faced by many black students. It is tempting to treat this aim as a "black" mission and these institutions as "black" institutions, and in certain obvious respects that is correct.

However, it is important to note that many HBCUs were founded in collaboration with some combination of white philanthropists, white religious missionaries and government grants. The movement to establish these schools was an interracial one aiming at building higher education for people disenfranchised or denied fair opportunities to develop their intellect. This is the historical mission, which now -- as in Dr. King's vision for the Poor People's Campaign -- can be conceived of in ways not restricted by race.

While these schools historically educated black students, they also gave the disenfranchised an opportunity to get an education. Today, these schools are still overwhelmingly black, but many HBCUs are recruiting non-blacks. There is even an HBCU in West Virginia that is 90 percent white. And quite a few non-HBCUs are overwhelmingly black. I would hate to see any school that gives opportunities to disenfranchised people of any race crumble, HBCU or not.

So, I will join you in encouraging people to give to the schools that serve this population, but not because they, as you said, "produced MLK, Thurgood Marshall, Alex Haley, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee," all extraordinary people, but because they give chances to Mike, Bryan, A.J., Julie and Ignacio -- ordinary people who need a fair opportunity.

And I believe that all Americans, not just black Americans, have a responsibility to support institutions that provide opportunity to disenfranchised populations.

The deterioration of HBCUs isn't a black problem. It's an American problem. And we all need to get involved in the solution.

Domonique Foxworth played seven seasons in the NFL with the Broncos, Falcons and Ravens. He has served as president of the NFLPA since 2012.

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