Watch: Michael Churchill’s acceptance speech for the 2020 Drum Major for Civil Rights Award

January 20, 2020 – On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in recognition of decades of work advancing civil rights, Public Interest Law Center attorney Michael Churchill was honored as a Drum Major for Civil Rights at the Philadelphia Martin Luther King Jr. Association for Nonviolence’s annual awards and benefit luncheon. The Drum Major awards recognize persons and organizations whose deeds are exemplary of the vision fostered by Dr. King. You can watch Mr. Churchill’s acceptance speech below.

“Dr. King’s activities were were underlied by an optimistic premise: that forcing government institutions to do what is right is worthwhile, because they could, in fact, deliver needed services and improve outcomes for ordinary citizens–just like the sanitation workers he was fighting for when he died,” Mr. Churchill said. “One of the greatest threats to his legacy today is the corrosive attacks on government at all levels, and the belief that it is not worthwhile making the effort. That is what you must fight, every day.”

Read the written remarks below:

Michael Churchill – 2020 Drum Major for Civil Rights

It is a great honor to accept this award from an association connected with Dr. King.  It was my great good fortune to have been in Washington, that day in August 1963, working as a reporter assigned to be way in the back, near the Washington Monument, when Dr. King made his great address. Even back there it was a clarion call to action, to right the racial injustices which he was unafraid to call out to a world which was more comfortable pretending that injustice did not involve them. I was so fortunate to be there.

It is also a great honor to accept this award in front of such distinguished advocates, who have devoted so much time and energy to carrying on the King legacy of ending the racial injustice and the deep inequalities which have been such a basic part of the American experience, beginning 400 years ago in Jamestown. I say that because what was important about the March on Washington was not the speeches but the actual presence of so many persons willing to commit to the cause. That was the foundation for Dr. King’s success, and it will be the foundation for any success in the future.

Dr. King’s core concept–his belief in universal human dignity, and the related need for equality, has carried forward into all of my work. But perhaps for me his most important lesson was that he was not a lawyer, that lawyers are not the movers and shakers they think themselves to be. Dr. King enabled lawyers to succeed because he built a movement which made change possible. An example is right here from Philadelphia: Bill Coleman, assisted by colleague Tom Gilhool, persuaded courts to end Girard College’s exclusion of Black students. But it was the street campaign of Cecil Moore and Paul Vance that drove the city’s reaction. Finally, I saw in Dr. King’s activities an optimistic premise that forcing government institutions to do what is right is worthwhile because they could in fact deliver needed services and improve outcomes for ordinary citizens, like the sanitation workers he was campaigning for when he died. One of the greatest threats to his legacy is the corrosive attacks on government at all levels and the belief that it is just not worthwhile making the effort. That is what you must fight, every day.

I want to talk about two areas that Dr. King was concerned with: physical violence as a tool of repression, and access to education.     Philadelphia has been no stranger to the use of violence and physical repression which Dr. King targeted.

Frank Rizzo, with his overt appeal to and condoning of physical force by police officers, his clear attempts to reverse hiring levels of Blacks on the Philadelphia police force—which in 1968 at the time of the Kerner Commission had been the highest in the nation–and his attempts to prevent women from being on the force at all, forced Philadelphia to confront issues of police hiring and police practices several decades before the Black Lives Matter campaigns brought those same issues to national attention. I am proud that the Public Interest Law Center played an important role in those activities, including writing new police rules and making sure they were implemented, which led to a decline in police killings to one-tenth of former levels. Hiring reforms mean women are now 25% of the police force, and the hiring rate of Black officers, which had declined to 12%, more than doubled for the next 20 years. We need to keep our attention on these matters. We are fortunate that in the next month we will have a Black woman police commissioner—Danielle Outlaw. She will not succeed in keeping down the problems of police violence if you do not support her and insist on that as a priority.

It is not accidental that Black and Brown families in Philadelphia and not white families are still giving their sons the speech on how to safely behave when approached by police. You can look at the stop and frisk rates and arrest rates for minorities compared to whites in Philadelphia, or the race of victims of police shootings to know why that is necessary, or just look at the racist homophobic emails by a few members of the department uncovered this last year. We need to make sure these become things of the past, just as much as the de jure segregation which existed when Dr. King was alive. Dr. King’s work to end violence and repression has made progress but is certainly not finished here.

Dr. King’s vision of equality in access to education, on the other hand, has been flagrantly ignored in Pennsylvania. We truly need a movement to end this tragic state of affairs.

Everyone knows that education, along with the right to vote, is the most important foundation stone to self government. The Supreme Court said in Brown v. Board of Education: “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments… it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” Somehow or other, that message has not gotten through to our legislators.

In Pennsylvania the needs of children have been subordinated to the self-serving needs of politicians who want to stay in office by not raising the taxes necessary to provide effective schools for all children. But of course it is not all children that suffer, just those in the least wealthy districts, and no-surprise, those are the districts with the most Black and Brown students.  What is surprising is how little public understanding or outrage exists. It is time to connect the dots.

The health crisis in Philadelphia’s schools, with children remaining home from schools closed because of asbestos and mold, with not enough staff to manage the clean up, and with parents distressed with fear about their child’s safety just going to school, is a direct result of inadequate and unequal funding.

But Philadelphia is not alone. The US Department of Education in 2017 said that Pennsylvania has the most unequal funding system in the country, with the widest gaps between spending in rich districts and poor districts. Let me repeat. The worst disparities in the country.

And just last week a national report using federally collected data on courses and teachers available to students and to student testing results stated: “the state’s achievement gaps between White students and Black and Hispanic students are consistently among the worst in the country.”

In fact, it rated Pennsylvania 47th out of 50 states. That means Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have less racial disparities in education that we do. Shame on us.

The cause is simple:  State appropriations for schools provide a smaller part of the funds necessary to cover the cost of K-12 spending than in all but three other states. Reliance on local funding means students in wealthy districts are fine, but in poor minority districts like Philadelphia, Reading, Allentown, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, Erie, Johnstown, Chester-Upland, Norristown–all school districts with majority minority populations–the hundreds of thousands of students attending these districts don’t stand an equal chance.

Just tell me on what basis—on what definition of equality–we can justify that students in some districts will have more than $25,000 of public dollars spent each year for 12 years to get a child  prepared for college or  for jobs to support its family and in Philadelphia and other districts where there are more children in poverty who are struggling to survive lives with trauma, they will be told to make do with half that amount or less. It is time we do something about this.

A team of lawyers which I am part of is now in the process of bringing to trial in state court proof that the state legislature and governor are failing to provide the state funding necessary to allow all school districts to adequately prepare students to be college and career ready at graduation, and that low wealth districts in particular do not have the resources necessary.  The disparities in funding are incontrovertible, so you can expect the state response to focus attention on other issues to divert responsibility.

That lawsuit, when it succeeds, will be faced with the reaction from those who in power who do not want to see change implemented, just as the court orders that Dr. King was marching to enforce were met by objection and sabotage. The only way that will be overcome will be–in Dr. King’s phrase–by the action of citizens exercising their power. Creating and supporting a political movement to end school funding inequities is vital if effective remedies are not going to be undercut, just as public support was needed to gain compliance with Brown.

One of the barriers to that political movement is the very little trust in government institutions, to do its job, to use new resources effectively  to overcome the impact of long years of inequality.

So that is the part of Martin Luther King’s message I want to emphasize. He fervently believed the gospel’s message of the value of every person, and he also believed that meant  the value of self-government–of, by and for all the people, as Lincoln so eloquently said. Where will we be if we give up our belief in self government and in our ability to make our public institutions serve our needs? In these new times, that must be our core conviction, sharing with Dr. King that self-government is not an exercise in futility and that it could deliver to the toiling Memphis garbage collectors  a decent share in the fruits of society’s productivity. Powerful forces do not want his vision of self government to happen,  powerful enough to make us sometimes despair whether it can happen, powerful enough to have generated the hate which constantly confronted Dr. King and then killed him, and powerful enough  to generate the hateful white supremacy, anti gay and lesbian, anti Semitic groups desperately trying to fight off Martin Luther King’s vision of America–a vision they were not powerful enough to kill and which all of us here so strongly believe in.

That vision of  self-government based on equality and dignity for all, enunciated in the Declaration of Independence but never fully implemented, is the vision of  Dr. King, which I believe will live long into our future. But it is, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, our future only if we work together to make it happen. I accept this award as my pledge to join with you to make sure that Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of human freedom and equality will actually touch all of the school children of Pennsylvania.