It’s not often you can mention Jay-Z and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the same breath.

Yet, the Brooklyn-born hip-hop mogul and the Nobel-winning civil rights leader share some common ground: While fighting for what’s right, both faced opposition from their so-called “allies.” 

Jay-Z made national headlines when he and his philanthropic group, Roc Nation, organized a grassroots campaign to promote Lifeline Scholarships, also known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) Scholarship program. The proposed program would award scholarships to students attending Pennsylvania’s lowest-performing schools, providing them the financial support they need to escape their failing neighborhood schools.

“There is no tactical solution in place from the state, and children are being forced to wait for answers,” stated the organization in a press release. “With every year that goes by, more and more children — particularly from poor districts — are missing out on learning opportunities and failing to maximize the full scope of their academic potential.”

Progressive politicians dogpiled on Jay-Z.

“This is ain’t it,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, belittling Jay-Z’s effort as a “celebrity campaign for a GOP proposal to take public dollars to send a few ‘lucky’ kids to private schools.”

State Rep. Emily Kinkead, a progressive lawmaker from suburban Pittsburgh, told Jay-Z to “take a seat,” calling his efforts “black face” for “white billionaires.”

Such racist insinuations mirror the tone of King’s critics, too. While King sat in a Birmingham jail cell, left-leaning moderates called the civil rights leader “extreme.” So-called allies deemed King’s efforts “unwise and untimely” and encouraged him to “find proper channels.”

Responding to this critique in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King shared his disappointment with “the white moderate … who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.’”

King called these critics to be “the Negro’s great stumbling block” — even more than the Ku Klux Klan.

Of course, nobody is claiming that Jay-Z and King offer a perfect apples-to-apples comparison. Jay-Z’s philanthropy is commendable but pales compared to King’s historical legacy.

However, both men used their fame to advance equality and received extraordinary pushback. Both advocated for transformative reforms and organized grassroots campaigns. Both absconded the traditional modus operandi of frustrating negotiations and empty promises to marginalized communities.

Progressive pleas for reform are, at best, a mixed message.

Some issues—such as gun control, criminal justice reform, and climate change—demand immediate, swift legislative responses.

Yet, educational reform lacks this urgency. Instead, progressive proposals for K–12 education, to borrow from King, “creep at horse-and-buggy pace.” These lawmakers urge historically debased communities to temper their anger, while they advance “long-term strategies.”

Unfortunately, the public education system is rotten to its core. With origins grounded in racist redlining, modern education remains de facto segregated, even 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education. Undoing this systemic rot will take decades, if not generations.

But students and families in underserved communities can’t wait. If there is anything we learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that even one year of educational disruption can result in significant learning loss and achievement gaps that will take years to address.

“At the current rate of academic performance, it will take African Americans 287 years to catch up,” said renowned educator and activist Steve Perry.

Time is not on our side.

King challenged the “myth of time,” or the notion that his strategy was too radical and fast. He called this opposition “the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.”

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability,” said King. “Time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

Who knows more about “social stagnation” than those stuck in failing school systems for generations? These students — primarily black and brown Americans who disproportionately enroll in charter schools in Pennsylvania and overwhelmingly support school choice — have consistently been left behind.

Rather than wait for a broken system to fix itself, we must transform education now. By bolstering existing programs (such as charter schools and tax-credit scholarships) and enacting new ones (such as Lifeline Scholarships), we can genuinely support Pennsylvania students.

Only then can we witness, in King’s words, the long arc of moral history bending toward justice.

Lenny McAllister is a Senior Fellow for Commonwealth Foundation and previously served as CEO of the PA Coalition for Public Charter Schools.  

2 thoughts on “Lenny McAllister: Jay-Z, MLK, and the progressive opposition to genuine reform”

  1. The issue is public dollars going to religious private schools run primarily by religious zealots or republikkkans. I don’t want ANY of my tax dollars being used to fund religious institutions. Let churches fund them or private contributors.

  2. Time is the last bastion of the elites. Defer and delay allows your issues to either die or become unrecognizable. It is the secret racism. In the past, educational endeavors such as Arts Magnets schools, science/technology academies, charters schools were established and began to demonstrate their worth, at that point they were castigated as causing students who could not or would not enroll in them to have a “loss of self-esteem,” time to “level the system.” For the elites, schools that are successful are the hobgoblins of their social views. Failing schools are of no consequence, the pain and suffering they create are too socially distant to be of concern, to paraphrase Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, “it is only when the problem comes rolling up to their threshold, does it become unbearable and intolerable.

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