Al Sharpton has now endorsed the call by Reverend/state senator James Meeks for students to boycott the first day of school, a protest against education funding disparities. Sharpton’s political allure being what it is, his announcement isn’t going to convince the likes of Mayor Daley, Governor Blagojevich, or Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan to drop their opposition to the plan—all have said they want to fix the funding gaps but don’t like the idea of keeping kids out of school, even though they’ve previously shown no reluctance to do it themselves when the rally is for a cause they want to be seen showing “leadership” on, such as tougher gun laws.
But that’s not what’s important here: Sharpton obviously raises the profile of the event. Though it’s hard to imagine him merely following the lead of local ministers, his name and notoriety will get others (i.e., reporters) to pay closer attention, which is exactly what Meeks is going for by announcing he'll take Chicago kids to try to register for classes at New Trier.
Like Sharpton, Meeks has been criticized for being a publicity hound and jumping from issue to issue. He’s often seen as politically unreliable, if not rash—someone who will march on City Hall and then turn around and endorse the mayor’s reelection a few weeks later.
But he knows his history. Meeks was a Chicago public school student in the mid-60s, when local civil rights activists organized boycotts to protest systematic school segregation and inequality; hundreds of thousands of students stayed away from classes on the biggest, in October 1963. The demonstrations eventually encompassed other issues, like housing discrimination, and brought Martin Luther King Jr. to town.
Meeks is passionate about education, and he also knows full well that it’s an issue that can energize far more supporters than, say, police abuse. Today one of his allies sent out a message announcing that 50 west-side pastors have signed on to his “Save Our Schools Now” campaign. Expect more in the coming weeks.
Whether the clergymen are able to turn the uproar over their New Trier visit into some kind of action on school funding is another matter. My hunch is that their important message is going to get muddled, by the nature of the protest if not the personalities. People are typically most moved by demonstrations that highlight a denial of rights; in this case, Meeks runs the risk of looking like he’s protesting what New Trier has, not what the Chicago Public Schools don’t.