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Emory African American Studies Expert to Delve into Struggle for Educational Access During MC’s Black History Month Presentation

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Sixty years ago, the federal government launched a comprehensive initiative designed to break the cycle of poverty by giving preschool children from families with low income a culturally responsive program to help meet their educational needs.

Studies have shown that children enrolled in the Head Start program, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, and demonstrate improved social, emotional, and behavioral development.

Dr. Crystal R. Sanders, associate professor of African American Studies at Emory University, will present a lecture at Mississippi College honoring the 70th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and celebrating the Black women advocates who started the Head Start program at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22, in the Aven Fine Arts Building at Mississippi College.

The celebration of Black education in Mississippi, “Something Better for My Children: Black Education in Slavery and Freedom,” is part of MC’s observance of Black History Month. Sanders’ presentation will be accompanied by a stirring performance from the Hinds Utica Concert Choir and a pair of exhibits on the Utica Institute’s Jubilee Singers and William Holtzclaw, founder of the Utica Institute, in the Leland Speed Library on the Clinton campus. Admission is free and the community is invited.

The occasion marks the first trip to Mississippi College by Sanders, author of “A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle.” Her book received the 2017 Critics Choice Award and New Scholar’s Book Award from the American Educational Research Association; the C. Vann Woodward Prize from the Southern Historical Association; the Huggins-Quarles Award from the Organization of American Historians; the Equity Award from the American Historical Association; and the Willie D. Halsell Article Prize from the Mississippi Historical Society.

In her work, Sanders explores how working-class Black women, in collaboration with the federal government, created the Child Development Group of Mississippi in 1965, a Head Start program that not only gave poor Black children access to early childhood education, but also provided Black women with greater opportunities for political activism during a crucial time in the Civil Rights movement. Sanders traces the stories of 2,500 women who staffed such preschool centers.

“I am eagerly anticipating my visit,” Sanders said. “For African Americans, education has been an avenue to myriad forms of freedom throughout history. During slavery, education made it relatively easier for enslaved people to read the Bible and to escape by writing a pass to freedom.

“After emancipation, education was the ticket to full participation in civic life and it provided a modicum of protection against economic exploitation. In short, education was a marker of African-American humanity, and it would be one of the arenas in which African Americans made citizenship claims.”

She said a purpose of her lecture will be to show that African Americans have gone to extraordinary lengths to secure educational opportunities for not just Black students, but also for those who have a desire for education.

“I am thrilled that Mississippi College understands the importance of celebrating Black History Month because our nation is still in a battle over who controls history and whose history matters,” she said. “Black History Month programming provides an opportunity to complicate and question narratives about the American experience that fail to consider racism, exclusion, and inequality.”

The presentation is being funded by a grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council and MC’s Provost Office. Sponsored by the African American Studies Program at MC, it is the second invited Black History Month lecturer in as many years.

“We don’t have a lot of faculty of color on campus, so we try to make sure we have speakers who are willing to share their academic expertise and lived experience with our students,” said Kristi Richard Melancon, professor of English and philosophy and codirector of MC’s African American Studies Minor. “We need to understand other people’s perspectives. Many people have had to fight for the right to have an equal education, historically and currently.

“As Christians, we have a moral imperative to make sure that everyone has equal access to education, regardless of their race.”

Dr. Christian Pinnen, professor of history and political science and codirector of MC’s African American Studies Minor, said Sanders is the ideal person to deliver that message.

“Dr. Sanders is an imminent scholar and a great speaker, and we are so pleased she agreed to speak to our community,” Pinnen said. “Her voice and expertise will allow people to learn a lot about the effect of desegregation and the fundamental role Black women played in that endeavor.

“Students will be able to engage the Brown v. Board of Education decision from a very different perspective and they will learn more specifically about the significance of Black Mississippians in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision.”

Melancon said Sanders’ lecture and the exhibits on loan from the Hinds Community College Utica campus will resonate an educational theme for MC’s Black History Month celebration this year.

“Too often in our history, education has been treated as a privilege when it really should be a right,” Melancon said. “Everyone should have access to it instead of just those that are privileged because of the color of their skin, their socioeconomic status, or their geographic location.

“As a college institution, we have a debt of gratitude that we can pay back to the community that supports us by sharing our institutional resources and knowledge. Through these lectures, our community members will have an opportunity to learn about research that they may be unfamiliar with, think through diverse perspectives that they may not encounter regularly, understand how the findings may apply in their world, and ultimately, take action.”

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