Father Michael L. Pfleger introduces Grammy Award winning John Legend.
By Chinta Strausberg
Recording artist, musician, writer, actor and humanitarian John Legend received numerous standing ovations late Friday when he challenged Chicagoans to join his fight for equal access to education for every child and where he warned politicians not to balance their budgets on the backs of the poor.
Legend spoke at length and performed during a Saint Sabina-sponsored concert at the Christ Universal Temple, 119th and Ashland.
Born John Stephens on December 28, 1978, Legend is the recipient of nine Grammy Awards and received the Songwriters Hall of fameâ€™s Starlight Award, but heâ€™s more than just a gifted musician. John Legend is continuing a 1954 fight for equal education what he describes as the resurrection of yesteryearâ€™s civil rights movement.
Legend used his musical gift to weave his social conscious experiences into his speech which mirrored a thumbnail sketch of his life of pain, sorrow, success that turned into a social justice awakening thatâ€™s triggered a burning desire to help the poor.
As a result, Legend is not just a musical genius. He has become a humanitarian in Africa and the United States where he is fighting for an equal education system he says 148-years after slavery and 57-years since the historic Brown v. Board of Educationâ€™s decision that outlawed state-sponsored segregation in the schools.
In introducing Legend, Father Michael L. Pfleger told of how at the age of four, young Legend began playing the piano and has excelled in his field at an astounding rate. He talked about Legendâ€™s the â€œShow Me Campaignâ€ where he raises money to help the downtrodden in Africa. Legend started his â€œShow Me Campaignâ€ after traveling to Ghana where he was stunned and saddened at seeing the level of poverty there.
A gifted musician, Legendâ€™s charitable acts are lengthy and soul-searching. Pfleger said today Legend â€œis an artist who proved musicians can make a difference and touch lives in a way that extends far beyond their music.â€
Legend thanked civil rights leaders on whose shoulders he stands today. â€œI have those brave men and women to thank for the opportunity I have today.â€
â€œWhen you read about the struggles of civil rights leaders, you have to cringe when you read about the hate and bigotry, the injusticeâ€¦that was not the end of the story,â€ Legend told his audience. He said their sacrifices gave him a â€œsense of hopeâ€ and that their trials and tribulations should serve as a â€œsense of optimismâ€¦.â€
Legend said, â€œReading about change was not enough for me,â€ he said referring to Economist Professor Jeffrey Sachâ€™s book entitled â€œThe End of Poverty.â€ â€œSo, when Professor Sach invited me to join him on a trip to Africa to see his team work first-handâ€¦I didnâ€™t grow up with a lot of money.
â€œI grew up in a working class family but nothing preparedâ€ him for the life poverty stricken Africans lived every day of their lives,â€ Legend said. â€œI woke up in the village thinking about home half-way around the world.â€ He thought of his â€œsafe, warm bed, my crystal clear drinking waterâ€¦â€ and the take-out order he could get delivered with a simple phone call.
â€œYet, I was meeting people who didnâ€™t have enough to eat or drink each day, parents who had five children yet only two survived, orphans whose mothers died preventable deaths in childbirth, grandmothers who walked miles without shoes every morning to get waters for their familiesâ€¦â€ and others simply hungry.
After witnessing so much hardship and suffering among Africans, Legend wrote a song entitled â€œShow Meâ€ based on what he saw in Zanzibar, Tanzania located in East Africa.
To date, Legend said he has raised more than $500,000 to help improve the lives of Africans and educating them on how they can lift themselves out of poverty and he did that working with Sachâ€™s Millennium Promise program. He said â€œShow Meâ€ was a song â€œthat asks simple questions, honest questions about life and deathâ€¦why is there so much suffering in the worldâ€¦, but I realized that I shouldnâ€™t just ask those questions to God. I should ask those questions to others and of myself.â€
Legend used â€œShow Meâ€ as a platform where he says people can get involved in improving their lives while being able to procure medicine to combat malaria, fertilizer for formers, learn agriculture, school lunches so they can learn to help themselves â€œin their struggle for humanity, dignity and prosperity.â€
But, Legend said his organization also helps youth in the United States. â€œWe inform them about whatâ€™s going on in the world around themâ€¦â€ and encourage them to participate in order to â€œmake meaningful changes.â€
He also helped to get-out-the vote in 2008 for then Senator Barack Obama. â€œHe was making an historic run for the presidency,â€ Legend recalled.
â€œThese were certainly inspiring times and all of these experiences began to affect my song writing.â€ He wrote a song called â€œIf youâ€™re Out Thereâ€ that the Saint Sabinaâ€™s Spirit of David dancers danced to earlier. â€œThat song was a call to action to challenge the status quo and build a better societyâ€¦. I wanted to do more to musically reflect what was going on politicallyâ€¦â€ so he wrote â€œWake Upâ€ which he admits was â€œpolitically riskyâ€ for a popular artist to do.
But, again he referred to those who came before him like in those in the 1960â€™s and the 1970â€™s who fought for justice and the status quo. They wrote songs like â€œWake Up, Everybodyâ€ and â€œWhatâ€™s Going Onâ€ â€œTo help provide a sound track for a revolution.â€
The topics then dealt with â€œweighty issues as civil rights, poverty, the injustice of the criminal justice system, education, health care, the environment and the war in Vietnam,â€ Legend said.
â€œWeâ€™ve truly come a long way in this countryâ€¦but all of this prosperity and all the problems weâ€™ve seen, when we began to put together this collection of political cover songs from the 1960â€™s and 1970â€™s, I was amazed at how relevant the lyrics still are today.
â€œStill today, we are fighting oversees under dubious premises,â€ he said. â€œStill today, we lack the political will to fix the environment, and far too many Americans still live in persistent poverty. Poverty and injustice arenâ€™t just found in villages in Africa and South East Asia. You know all too well that they are right here and our fight for civil rights is not over.
â€œWe still live in a country where opportunities are not anywhere equal, and unfortunately in America a lot of this inequity is perpetuated and institutionalized in our classrooms every day,â€ said Legend.
He painted the cycle of poverty as being â€œhanded down from generation-to-generation. When youâ€™re born into a poor family, statistics say more likely than not youâ€™re going to stay that way.
â€œIf a child is going to live a better life than his or her parents, the child needs a tool to break out of that cycle, to escape from the poverty trap. I am convinced that the best tool out of poverty is a quality education,â€ he told a cheering crowd.
â€œBut as a country, weâ€™re too often failing the childrenâ€¦too often we are denying these young people access to a quality education and the ability to have control over their own destiny. Our public education system is in need of repair. We need to do much better,â€ he said.
â€œMany of our schools are literally and figuratively crumbling,â€ Legend stated. â€œWe arenâ€™t providing so many American children with the quality education they deserve, and weâ€™re not giving kids especially low-income and minority kids the chance to succeed. â€œ
Quoting the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall from his dissenting opinion in a case begun by concerned parents in Texas who were fighting for their childrenâ€™s rights, Legend said, â€œWe cannot stand idly by while accomplished children unjustifiably receive a fair education that may affect the hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.â€
â€œSadly,â€ Legend said, â€œit is also the Supreme Court case that said â€˜there is no fundamental right to education in the United States.â€ However, Legend added, â€œWhether or not the Supreme Court believes education isnâ€™t a fundamental right, we need to act like it is. It is up to us to do something about it.â€
â€œEducational inequality is the reality that when a child is born what color that child is and/or how much money that childâ€™s parents make that determines the quality of his or her educational prospects. That is not just. That is not fair. That is not right. That is not the America that I believe in,â€ he said.
Legend said this September, America will celebrate the 54th anniversary of the desegregation of the Little Rock Central High School. â€œAlthough Brown vs. Board of Education ordered that schools be desegregated, it provided for protection of 1,000 members of the U.S. Army for nine black students to enter a school that was closer to their home and offered them a better education.
â€œThe Little Rock 9 will go down in American history as one of the most important events in the civil rights movement,â€ said Legend. â€œThis is over 50-years ago and minority students today are still fighting for access to quality schools.â€
Legend referred to Kelly Williams-Bolar, an Ohio mother who was arrested for sending her child to a school outside of her district. â€œArrested for making an effort to send her kid to a better schoolâ€¦arrested for exercising a choice in the kind of education her child gotâ€¦.
â€œIt means that still in 2011, too poor and minority kids are falling behind. The statistics are horrifying,â€ he said. Legend read a list of statistics including â€œby fourth grade, black and Hispanics students are nearly three academic years behind their white peers, 89 percent of Latinos and 86 percent of black students are reading below grade level.
â€œOne-third of American students donâ€™t graduate from high school and barely half of black and Hispanics graduate from high school. Our nationâ€™s public elementary, middle and high schools that are supposed to be preparingâ€¦too often failing in their mission.
Legend said rather â€œmany of our high schools are what some called â€˜drop-out factoriesâ€™ where students are more likely to withdraw than to actually receive their diploma.
â€œDid you know that 7,000 high school students drop out every day in Americaâ€¦. Just 15 percent of our high schools are responsible for half of those drop-out students and those schools are usually schools in black and Latino communities.â€
Referring to his home state of Ohio, Legend said, â€œBy the end of fourth grade, poor and minority students are already two-years behind. By eighth grade, they are three-years behind, and if they reach 12th grade, they are four-years behind. I happen to be an exception to the rule. We need to change the rules,â€ he told a cheering audience.
â€œWe have to make bold moves to changeâ€ those statistics, he stated. Legend said years ago America proudly led in having a world-class education. However, he said the U.S. â€œis no longer competitiveâ€ and has reportedly dropped from first to 18th place in high school graduation rates among developed nations.
He said the U.S. has dropped from first to 14th in college graduation rates, first to 35th in math, first to 29th in science, first to 32nd in readingâ€¦. Itâ€™s not the students who are quitting. Itâ€™s not some failure of their desire or their ability. Itâ€™s our system that is failing to do what it takes to provide them with a quality education.â€
Legend said educational inequality â€œjust doesnâ€™t affect that individualâ€ but all of society. Quoting a friend, Houston economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Legend said, â€œHe told me if we just erase the educational achievement gap, we can also see a dramatic decline in the black, white incarceration gapâ€¦.â€
According to Legend, each year the U.S. spends $9,644 per K-12 student. Compare that to the $22,600 we spend per year on the prison industryâ€¦.â€ Legend said, â€œThere is a direct correlation between funding students on the front side rather than on the back side of life.
He said the Little Rock 9 incident was just the beginning of the journey towards equal education. â€œWe are responsible for our nationâ€™s students. We owe it to them to make it better. We have to do it now. This is the civil rights issue of our time. We cannot stand idly by while so many children are denied a good education; so we have to join the fight to reform the system for our young people.
As a society, we have to ensure that individuals are given the same opportunity to shop. We have to level the playing field. It shouldnâ€™t require a Herculean effort, a great luck to make it out of your high school.
Legend said, â€œA great education can literally be he difference between college and prison, life or deathâ€¦. We now know what makes a school great, in large part, the quality and the passion of teachersâ€¦. â€œ
He believes in the reform that will make teacher retention based on academic performance. â€œOur kids deserve to have a quality teacherâ€¦and our teachers deserve to be in a system that paces a value on them doing heir job effectively.â€ Legend said teachers should be paid more but held accountable.
â€œItâ€™s a great investmentâ€¦. To any politician who is looking to balance the budget by convincing the public that teachers are making too much money more often than not, our teachersâ€ should be paid more.
â€œAnd to some politicians who â€œtalk about the moral imperative this country has to balance the budget, well, Father Pfleger, I think you might need to give these folks a lecture on morality.â€
Saying he doesnâ€™t go to church often, Legend said, â€œI didnâ€™t see nothing in the bible that said morality has to mean balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and the working class, cutting educationâ€¦everything to help people get out of povertyâ€¦but at the same time making sure millionaires and billionaires get tax cutsâ€¦.â€
He gave the example of Detroit school system having 60 students in a class then juxtaposed that to the tax cuts for the wealthy, including himself, he said he did not need.
Legend urged them to join him in â€œfind ways to contribute to humanity. I canâ€™t think of a better way to live a more meaningful life than that. We Americans know that change can happen that change in the face of opposition is very possible. Nearly 150-years ago, slaves were emancipated. Ninety-years ago women got to vote for the first time. Fifty-years ago, we desegregated our schools, and about two-years ago I was performing at the inauguration of the first back president.â€
Legend said itâ€™s time to unite and fight for the â€œequal access to a quality education for all children in Chicago and all around the country. Itâ€™s time to wake up, everybody. No more sleeping in bed. No more backwards thinking. Time to think ahead. We have to continue to fight for our children to have opportunity and access to the American dream.â€
Legend then sang a medley of songs including â€œWake Up, Everybody.â€
Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host.
Photo: Chinta Strausberg