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While vacationing on Block Island I discover a story of a teacher and Mississippi Freedom Summer fifty years ago.

August 19, 2014

t300-Monroe Engel

Monroe Engel, who had a summer home on Block Island, went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964.

We have joined our Brooklyn family for the last few weeks of summer on Block Island, Rhode Island. This week’s Block Island News features a story of Harvard professor Monroe Engel and his experiences as an older participant in the historic 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer.

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Monroe and Brenda Engel have had a house on the West Side of the island since 1955. Monroe taught English at Harvard University and used his summers on Block Island to recharge and pursue his studies and writing.

Their grandson, Zach Goldhammer, was an intern at The Block Island Times one summer several years ago. He has now graduated from college and is working at The Atlantic Monthly in Washington, DC. While visiting his grandparents this summer, he talked to his grandfather about a summer 50 years ago that was a turning point in the history of this country.

Here is Zach’s account of the role that his grandfather played.

— Fraser Lang

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a landmark moment in the civil rights movement that involved a massive African-American voter registration and education campaign and pulled together a coalition of activists from all across the country.

The media has published many stories celebrating various iconic groups which participated in the movement. Portrayals of the activists who moved to Mississippi that summer, however, tend to focus on young, idealistic college students, who headed south to show solidarity in the fight against Jim Crow.

The story less often told is that of the older generation that also participated in Freedom Summer. This is the story that belongs to my grandfather, Monroe Engel, who was in his mid-forties at the time that he went down to Mississippi in 1964. At the time, Monroe (who prefers us to call him by his first name, rather than any affectionate grandfatherly nickname), was already a well-established novelist and English professor at Harvard who specialized in the works of Charles Dickens. He had planned to spend the summer of 1964 as he usually did, on Block Island, where he came to spend time with his family and focus on his own writing.

But when a group of his undergraduate students came to tell him about their plans to go to Mississippi, his plans soon changed.

“They came to see me and asked whether I would go down and teach a course at Tougaloo College,” Monroe remembered.

Tougaloo, which at the time was a segregated, all-black college, was one of the sites where Freedom Summer activists would host free classes. The classes were intended to boost literacy in the region and give college students and local teachers a chance to further advance their education.

“I went down because a lot of graduate students [from other universities] were going to go down to Tougaloo to teach different courses there,” Monroe said, “but they couldn’t get any Harvard graduate students to do it.”

So, despite the hostile threat of the Ku Klux Klan and the news of the three young activists who had been killed for their work in organizing Freedom Summer earlier that June, Monroe decided to head down to Mississippi.

There he became a member of a team of Harvard professors who would teach a two-week intensive English literature course at Tougaloo. Monroe initially wanted to teach the works of one of his favorite authors and preferred subjects for academic research, such as Charles Dickens, but his prospective students weren’t interested. Instead, they requested to read the works of an author whose writing was more relevant to issues of race relations in the American south: William Faulkner.

Though Monroe was not a Faulkner specialist, he decided that he would teach “Light in August,” an extremely difficult novel first published in 1932, whose themes of race and sex in Mississippi remained controversial even three decades after the book’s first appearance. Beyond its difficult structure and controversial themes, teaching the book also presented a logistical problem due to the fact that it was not available in any of the book stores near Tougaloo.

Still, Monroe was resourceful and used his own connections to get around the problem at hand.

“I called someone at Random House, and he agreed to meet the plane I was coming down on, which had a stop in New York, and he’d give a case of the Modern Library edition of ‘Light in August,’ and that I could arrange to have it picked up. I said I’ll make the books available and see if some of them can get to it.”

Once the delivery was arranged, Monroe began teaching his first class at Tougaloo, where he was joined by professor Alan Lebowitz, who taught Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and Bill Alfred, who taught Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

The two-week course quickly proved to be overly ambitious. The college classroom was filled with students and teachers who still struggled with the difficult material at hand. Many found that they didn’t know the vocabulary being used in the books and had trouble making it through the opening chapters.

After the first days class, Monroe decided he would switch over to an oral teaching style, and would have the class read the chapters aloud, so that the students wouldn’t have to struggle with the material on their own. This tactic improved things somewhat, but Monroe will also be the first to tell you that the classes were not a success in and of themselves, and the Harvard professors did not do much to alter the academic challenges faced by Mississippi schools in 1964.

The more important experiences, ultimately, came from interpersonal connections and friendships that were formed outside the classroom. One such friendship lasted long after the professors left Mississippi. Marion, a student of Monroe’s, remembered the Freedom Summer classes of 1964 as “the most exciting time of my life.” The classes inspired him to move to Cambridge in the fall, where he arrived with “seventeen dollars and three telephone numbers, Alan [Lebowitz]’s, Bill Alfred’s, and Monroe Engel’s.”[Marion later enrolled at Harvard with Alan Lebowitz’s help.

For Monroe, the trip also allowed him to see some of the most important civil rights leaders of the decade in person, including Martin Luther King, who spoke at a local church near where Monroe was teaching. While Monroe was impressed by King, he was even more excited by King’s contemporary, Bob Moses, who at the time was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader working on the state’s African-American voter-registration drives. [Moses would later start the Algebra Project, an innovative mathematics education program which applied the lessons that Moses learned through community organizing during Freedom Summer to the problem of making education relevant to students].

For Monroe, the stories of Freedom Summer have become an integral part of his life, and are among the tales he tells most frequently, along with stories of his days as a soldier in World War II and his stories of the old days of Block Island. To hear him recount these stories can make one realize the ways in which a range of worlds have been connected through the work of one man. Though Block Island today may seem worlds away from Tougaloo, Mississippi in 1964, my grandfather’s story remains a living link between these distant and divided spaces.

Karen Lewis. Rahm’s CPS hiring stunt.

August 19, 2014


- Karen Lewis is President of the Chicago Teachers Union. (Sun-Times)

The City of Chicago is gearing up to enforce its Chicago Public Schools preference policy, which would give CPS graduates preferential standing among other firefighter applicants, providing an unfair advantage above students enrolled in private or religious schools. While Mayor Rahm Emanuel apparently seeks to encourage more opportunity for CPS high school graduates to serve in the Chicago Fire Department, it seems like a shortsighted approach to creating educational stability and opportunities for Chicago’s youth.

With dwindling poll numbers as it relates to his education policies, it appears the mayor yet again has not given much thought towards how to empower Chicago’s youth.
I suggest a real and meaningful incentive plan that goes beyond the mayor’s proposal.

Instead of offering CPS high school graduates special treatment, the mayor should work toward giving students the educational resources they need to become successful firefighters. CPS should turn the current Chicago Police and Firefighter Training Academy after-school program into an in-school Career and Technical Education program of study. Not only would this provide students with a foundation in fire science and all aspects of firefighting, but it will also motivate students to stay in school, as studies show that CTE programs have higher graduation rates than non-CTE programs. In fact, student retention in CPS’ CTE program in 2013 was 83 percent and the graduation rate of CTE students was an astounding 99 percent.

A citywide mentoring plan might include:

A course in the introduction to fire science to be taught in CPS high schools; such a curriculum is readily available from local community colleges and might include dual credit components;
An internship program where students could visit local firehouses, see the nature of firefighting and also develop important skills;
Participation in a prep course designed to assist all students, including private school students who are Chicago residents, in doing well on the exam;
Volunteer activities aimed at fire prevention in the community and public awareness.
It may appear at first glance that the CPS preference policy is neutral toward religion and race. But even a cursory examination reveals insidious religious and racial discrimination. A distinction is drawn between city residents who graduate from a CPS high school and those city residents attending a private school. In actual practice, the overwhelming majority of students attending private high schools in Chicago are enrolled in parochial schools, especially — but not limited to — those operated by the Archdiocese of Chicago. That large group of students is denied equal treatment under the mayor’s plan for one reason — they attend religious schools. This is a burden upon the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

Again, while the policy does not refer to religious discrimination, its de facto result is the clear disparate negative treatment of students choosing a religious school option. It is odd that in an area of society with perhaps the most notorious history of de facto discrimination (i.e., the education of our children), Mayor Emanuel should propose resurrection of a policy long rejected. At a time when there is particular sensitivity to efforts to impose burdens upon religious freedom, why would the City of Chicago elect to adopt such a discriminatory policy offensive to a large number of Chicagoans?

It also is likely that Emanuel’s plan results in racially disparate treatment as well. While this memorandum does not purport to have conducted a full study on the racial makeup of the private schools in Chicago, it does appear quite reasonable to suggest that those attending private schools are predominately classified as “Caucasian” for racial statistics purposes. This point merits further study to ensure that the plan does not, in addition to discriminating based on religion, also do so based on race.

The mayor’s policy should be rejected for what it really is — a meaningless stunt that does nothing whatsoever to raise CPS graduation rates and has zero impact on the quality of public safety in Chicago. It does, however, foster religious and racial divisiveness and invites significant legal challenges that could cost taxpayers millions.


The Missouri compromise.

August 18, 2014


I never promised I wouldn’t check my email while on this late August hiatus with my family.

I doubt it would surprise you that I received tons of hate mail of late. Hatred not so much directed at me, but at what I have had to say about the death of Michael Brown and the people’s response in Ferguson, Missouri.

It is a level of white racism and hatred – real racist language – that I do not allow to be posted here.

On the other hand there is the comments of Dan Mullin, a retired law enforcement officer from downstate Illinois.

Dan has posted comments on this blog before, mostly about pensions.

On the issue of pensions, Dan and I see pretty much eye to eye.

On the death of Michael Brown? 

We do not agree at all.

“What do you want the police to do, Fred? Hold hands with them and sing while buildings are being burned and looted?”

Dan asked me this question after last Thursday night. That was when, without any warning, the Ferguson police behaved so violently and without provocation that the Governor of MIssouri removed them from all law enforcement responsibilities.

“I don’t want them shooting 18-year old Black kids In the back,” I wrote back.

“Fred, neither do I,” responded Dan. “And people should call for and wait for a rigid investigation before convicting or condemning anyone including the police. BTW the autopsy was released by the family today. While what they released is not conclusive of what happened, it does show no one was shot in the back. As a retired police administrator, I welcome the federal investigation into this matter. I just don’t think it is fair to point the finger towards anyone before the real facts come out. BTW….thank you for all your hard work on pension theft. i only wish the attorney general would investigate those conspiring to commit those thefts,” wrote Dan.

The results of the family autopsy are not quite as inconclusive as Dan suggests.

And the reality is that no forensic evidence will truthfully address the death of Michael Brown.

It is not really about whether or not he was shot in the back or front or about the number of bullet holes.

What autopsy or forensic investigation will address our country’s history of racism?

No investigation by the Justice Department will mention this: There are more Black men in the criminal justice system today – in prison or on probation, then there were Black men in slavery in 1850.

Will it mention our new Missouri Compromise?

If you remember your American history you know that the original Missouri Compromise allowed slavery to continue in the Southern states and was later amended to allow slavery in the new territories.

Today’s Missouri compromise wants to distribute blame equally to Michael Brown and Ferguson’s African-American community.

And, well yes. Some Ferguson officials acted badly.

The new Missouri Compromise wants us to hold off on what we know happened to Michael Brown.

But there are too many witnesses.

Hundreds of years of witnesses.

We can’t compromise on who is to blame for Ferguson.

I support Carlos Rosa for 35th Ward Alderman.

August 17, 2014

State Representative-elect Will Guzzardi and State Senator Willie Degado with candidate Carlos Rosa.


TMD. Welcome to Ferguson.

August 16, 2014


CPS bans parent Rousemary Vega.

August 15, 2014


Movement in Hinsdale D86.

August 15, 2014

- From HHSTA

District 86 Negotiations Moving Forward.

Teachers association and board of education work toward an agreement

HINSDALE, IL. — August 15, 2014 — The teachers of the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) and the District 86 Board of Education have made progress in working toward a compromise. Using both federal mediation and small group negotiations suggested by Dr. Skoda, the two sides have met on four of the last seven days and have been able to find some common ground on key issues. While important work remains, the negotiators for both the board and the teachers continue to work toward a compromise.

While an agreement has not yet been reached, both sides agree it is in the best interests of students to spend the next few days focused on getting school started. There will be a mediation session on Monday, August 18. Recently, the teachers association stated that it would begin the school year on time, as scheduled, August 22.

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