Elizabeth Warren’s Speech on Black Women Didn’t Include the Black Woman Who Integrated Her Segregated High School


Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren delivered a speech about black women in Atlanta this week, but that speech did not include any mention of the black woman whose activism corrected an injustice that Warren herself benefitted from.

Warren’s speech at Clark Atlanta University Thursday night drew a lot of attention for several disruptions by activists protesting in favor of charter schools, an issue on which I happen to agree with Warren.

But Warren’s deer-in-the-headlights reaction was not exactly confidence-inspiring. After the first disruption, Warren waited for her crowd’s counter-chant to quell the protests before soldiering on with her speech.

When the chanting returned, Warren was joined onstage by megawatt endorser Rep. Ayanna Pressley (R-MA), and a bemused Warren could be heard asking “What do we do with this?”

Rep. Pressley took charge of the stage, and respectfully got the protesters to stop disrupting.

What followed was a bad book report of a speech about the Atlanta Washerwomen Strike that took pains to portray white workers as “standing with” black workers in early labor actions, when the white workers who eventually joined that strike numbered in the dozens, and early labor unions often excluded or segregated black workers.

Warren’s speech also trafficked in the notion that racism is an “evil force” powered by “racist politicians,” and that a chief lesson of black history is that “The rich and powerful aren’t going to just give away their power,” a notion that smacks of absolution for the ordinary white people who practice and/or tolerate —all of whom benefit from — racism. She spoke of racism as a disembodied entity that whispers commands to racist white people, rather than as an integral part of their character, for which they are responsible.

Warren also missed an opportunity to acknowledge her own privilege, while honoring a black woman who fought against the system that provided it.

If you’ve ever been to a Warren rally, you know the story of “the dress,” quaveringly told as an example of Warren’s early life in the “ragged edge of the middle class,” whatever that means.

The story plays like gangbusters with her crowds, but even on the surface it’s a glaring ball of bleach-white privilege. Warren’s mom cries — and Warren cries in the telling — because she’s got to put on a nice dress and go “take a minimum wage job” to “save the house,” at a time when black women had been in the sub-minimum wage workforce for a century. And you had a house to save?

But the part of that story Warren leaves out is that her mom took that job so that Warren could remain in the Northwest Classen school district, and attend one of the best high schools in the state. Northwest Classen High School was a segregated school until after Warren graduated in 1966.

The one time Warren almost talked about it — in a 2012 profile on her early life — she portrayed Oklahoma City as some frozen time capsule where the strange ways of turmoil and progress had simply not reached them, and the reporter incorrectly claimed that all Oklahoma schools were segregated. In fact, Northeast High School began integrating years before Warren started high school.

Obviously, she had no control over this, and her parents’ motivation appears to have been to get the daughter the best education they could, but like it or not, Warren benefited tremendously from this segregated high school, and didn’t have to compete with black students for things like the debate scholarship she earned. And while she was reaping those benefits, black people were fighting for the right to join her.

The fight against segregation roiled throughout Warren’s time in the Oklahoma City school system, and just two years after Warren graduated, Clara Luper became the first black teacher at Northwest Classen High School.

Luper was already a civil rights  pioneer by then, having led a famously successful sit-in in 1958.

During a 1980 speech, Luper talked about her experiences as the first black classroom teacher at Northwest Classen.

She described the school as “where your upper upper people go,” and told how she confronted a group of boys shouting the n-word at her on her first day. She rushed to the end of the hall and told them “I’m Mrs. Luper and I don’t want you to forget it.”

Luper said that moments later, a white teacher came up to her and said “Clara, Ms. Luper, I don’t know what to call you, I don’t know whether to call you colored, black, negro, or what.”

“And I said I better teach this educated teacher a lesson,” Luper recalled, and said she told the woman “Now you’ve read a lot about my non-violent activities I’ve done on the battleground, but here we are in the educational circle, and I am what is known as a violent teacher. I’ll knock the hell out of you in a minute!”

And Luper recalled similarly winding misbehaving students up by telling them “Hey! I’m of the African background, and when people don’t get into my lessons, I beat drums!”

“I think I communicated with those children because, after all, I’m Clara Luper, your teacher,” she said.

This was less than two years after Warren graduated that school, and it wasn’t the “rich and powerful” getting schooled by Clara Luper for being racist, it was kids just like the ones Warren went to school with.

Warren used Northwest Classen as a launchpad from which she earned a full ride debate scholarship to George Washington University, then dropped out after two years to get married. In that same 1980 speech, Luper talked a little bit about her own experience in college.

Once they open the doors of that university and we rushed in because we wanted master’s degrees, and we wanted to earn, and we wanted to develop our brains to the fullest potentials.

Now come with me to Oklahoma University. The only black in the social sciences department, and then a professor looks at me, and I’m in this strange land of whiteness, because I had looked at whites from the other side of the fence, and in my own mind when they denied me the right to eat in a restaurant, and when I had seen my brother die in Henrietta Oklahoma because they wouldn’t admit him to a hospital, when I had seen my daddy worked day and night, at the end sometimes the man would forget to pay him.

And I saw the look on his face when I said “addy what are you going to do,” he said “I can’t do nothing. But the little money I get, I’m going to educate my children, but I don’t ever want you to have to do what I’m doing, what I had to go through.”

And I said “Daddy don’t worry about it, I won’t do it.”

Now the professor looks at me in the classroom and he says to me “I never taught a n***** and I never wanted to.”

I looked at that doctor with all of his education, and I said to myself “Brother you don’t know this one, because this n***** knows how to mix the alphabet. I can go in and perform surgery on that n***** and make it one of the greatest rivers that the world has ever seen.”

“And I sat there in that class, I could hardly wait for test day. Did you want to see this n***** perform? And the man was silly enough to ask me the most simple question I’ve ever conceived: What do you think caused the civil war?

Luper also talked about her 1972 Senate run, and some things voters told her that might still sound familiar today.

Many whites in America today continue to be reluctant to vote for black candidates. I ran for the United States Senate in my state, and when I think of all the things I’ve ever done that probably was the most satisfying.

When I traveled my state from one side of it to the other, and I looked at my white brothers and many of them told me “Clara I just can’t vote for a black person.”

I said “Then vote for me.”

It was a funny thing, it was a funny thing, there were a lot of black people that came to me and said “Clara I just can’t vote for you because I don’t think you’re going to make it.”

And I said “Vote for me even if I don’t make it, I would like to be the first one to lose the senatorial race in my state.”

It’s unclear whether Warren is simply unaware of Clara Luper’s contributions to the black history she explained at an HBCU Thursday night, or deliberately avoids discussing her. But Warren’s continued failure to talk about the role that segregated high school played in her success is a missed opportunity to convey a unique insight into white privilege.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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