Pete Seeger and his banjo made these words semi famous, but it was Florence Reece who wrote the words to the song, “Which Side Are You On,” in 1931 on a calendar in her kitchen after being harassed in her home by Sheriff J.H. Blair of Harlan County, Kentucky. Blair was attempting to intimidate Reece and her husband because of their work in organizing the United Mine Workers. In one verse she wrote, “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there. You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.”
The political divisiveness nationally and in the state of Oklahoma has brought us to a place where the question once again becomes entirely relevant, “Which side are you on?” And nowhere is this more apparent than in the fight over School Choice in Oklahoma. We have reached a place in the resistance to ESAs (vouchers) where there is no space for those who wish to remain neutral. The recent withdrawal of SB 560 is testimony to the fact that many “neutrals” are waking up and speaking out in support of public schools and public school funding. The vocal pro-voucher minority in Oklahoma are not finding the grassroots support they were hoping for.
School Choice will be studied by future generations as an issue with a clear “wrong side” and “right side” of history. The Editorial Board of The Oklahoman recently published Poor families lose with withdrawal of Oklahoma ESA bill in response to the demise of SB 560. The Oklahoman, like Donald Trump, Dr. Steve Perry, Kyle Loveless, and many other reformers, claims that School Choice is “the civil rights issue of our time.” By that they mean that supporting vouchers today is tantamount to the work of Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Clara Luper, and others during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The editorial goes so far as to quote Dr. King, implying that King would approve of the work of dismantling our public education system!
There is a great article over at Think Progress exposing the racist history of voucher programs. Please read it here. Then, more recently, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, exploited and appropriated the work of leaders of Historically Black Colleges and University, claiming they were “pioneers in School Choice.” This piece is from Teaching Tolerance. School Choice proponents seem to think that being on the right side of history simply involves using the language of past leaders and movements. You can’t repackage the racist mechanisms of the past and sell them today as tools of social justice. All the social justice arguments in support of vouchers are surface level and never include many of the things of which Dr. King often spoke, including the negative effects of capitalism on communities of color and the radical redistribution of power and wealth.
I believe that most School Choice proponents are fully aware that vouchers will not help but only harm poor communities and communities of color. I also believe that a few are completely sincere in their claims of “civil rights.” In other words, it is possible to be on the wrong side of history for the right reasons. But in the end, the wrong side of history will always be the wrong side of history, and vouchers will always be the wrong side of history.
So which side are you on, #oklaed? Are you on the side of Clara Luper, civil rights leader, agitator, and public school history teacher? Or are you on the side that is coopting Dr. King’s words to support an elitist free market agenda? Oklaed’s updated last verse to “Which Side Are You On?” now reads, “Don’t scab for reformers. Don’t listen to their lies. Us teachers haven’t got a chance, unless we organize!” I’m pretty sure Florence Reece and Pete Seeger would approve.