CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Yes, Charlotte's Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture offered free art and music to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday Monday. But it was lectures about King's call to educate youth in critical thinking that brought overflow crowds to hear civil rights leaders who span the city's generations.
From Gantt himself, a 75-year-old former Charlotte mayor who is the center's namesake, to millennial leaders and promising students, all agreed that education is vital to racial justice, economic opportunity and personal fulfillment. But there were lively exchanges about how to make that happen.
Almost 50 years after King's death, Charlotte and the nation face persistent data showing that African-Americans trail their white counterparts on measures of achievement and discipline.
"This is about urgency. I'm here to pull the fire alarm," said James Ford, an education consultant who is a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher and North Carolina teacher of the year.
A panel that featured Gantt, Ford and Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Rickye McKoy-Mitchell ended up with about 150 people packed into a room set up for 100, with at least as many turned away. Meanwhile, thousands more took part in lectures, marches, performances and service projects around the Charlotte region, some of which will continue this week.
Karen Meadows, a Guilford County Schools educator who wrote a book about desegregation pioneers, organized the Gantt speaker series focused on a quote from King: "The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically."
"We focus on his activism but forget his emphasis on education," Meadows said.
A panel of local high school and college students said parents, teachers, mentors and the students themselves must work together to create the kind of "intelligence plus character" that King called the true goal of education. And youth who are lucky enough to have that support should also help guide those who don't, they said.
"I feel like it starts in middle school and it ends never," Alyssa Shepard, a Johnson C. Smith University student, said of the need for mentoring.
Gantt said for his parents, who grew up with segregation and didn't finish high school, education was "the promise of America." For him, excelling in school opened the door to a career in architecture, politics and civic leadership.
"Back then, if you were really smart in school it was almost like being the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft," Gantt said. "I have great consternation when I hear that in some of our public schools today, if a child is smart he hides it."
And while Gantt said schools play an important role in opening doors for children, they can't shoulder the blame for all shortcomings.
"The responsibility lies with the parent," Gantt said. "I don't care whether it's a single parent or a nuclear family or an extended family. There is not enough accountability on the part of the home life of that child."
Ford, on the other hand, agreed that home life is important. But he said too much emphasis on that aspect often leads to scapegoating and pathologizing black communities. "It starts there," Ford said, "but it doesn't end there."
Instead, Ford emphasized the importance of teachers who understand and support black students: "It begins with the teacher. Does the teacher have critical consciousness? Students either rise or sink to the level of the expectations of teachers."
Another panel focused on the intersection of education and activism. Assistant public defender Toussaint Romain and newly elected Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston, who rose to national prominence during Charlotte's 2016 police shooting protests, both said their formal education bore fruit when it helped them step into leadership on the streets.
Winston noted that the angry teens and young adults on the street were giving voice to their own experience, which was often seeing their own intelligence and potential denied. "This is what I experienced out there over six days: Thousands of people thinking critically."
Donyell Roseboro, a UNC Wilmington administrator who joined Winston and Romain, said young people may forget that King was not just a protest leader but a prolific writer who earned a doctorate and strategized carefully. "You can be a scholar activist," she said.
Romain said he sees young people who have completed high school in his role as a UNC Charlotte instructor and sees dropouts who have been charged with crimes in his role as public defender. "My students will end up in corporate America," Romain said, "my clients in corporate prisons."
Many of the speakers urged everyone listening to do more for young people, from their own children to strangers in dire need of adult support. That might mean giving up hours of personal time and hopes of material comfort, said Romain and Winston, both of whom have young children.