Acceptance Speech

Members of the President's family, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, family and friends.

Four weeks ago, upon hearing that I had been selected as this years John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage recipient, I sat at my desk in a state of elated shock. I knew it would take a few minutes to recover. But minutes have become weeks, and you see me here today, still in a wondrous amazement!

I accept this lantern, symbolic of truth and courage, with great humility. I can think of no other recognition in the world that I could value more. And yet, I know full well that it would not be me standing here today were it not for the prayers, encouragement, and courage of many others who have been part of the almost larger than life drama.

These courageous others include my wife and daughter who were at times targets of hatred and abuse, and yet they endured unfailingly, bravely.

They were those teachers, who invited me to visit their classes and student programs, knowing that they would be ostracized by many of the faculty.

There were board members who often made decisions based on the children's needs and well-being, knowing that they were invoking the wrath of special interest "power" groups.

Courageous media persons investigated and probed for truth, and then published or aired examples of inequities so entrenched and institutionalized, that even further exposing these inequities was often seen as a liberal attack on tradition.

There were those ordinary citizens, attending town or board meetings, holding church meetings to discuss and learn and pray, or simply whispering encouragement where there seemed to be retaliation for even thinking "improperly."

These examples of courage touched my life regularly, tangibly, But the intangible has been forever with me, too - a childhood of precious little television, but scores of biographies--each biography an individual fragment helping to form a sprawling mosaic that is my personal essence of American democracy.

I became an adult during the sixties, an era in which figures like John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were living symbols of the ideals composing my personal mosaic of American democracy. The courage these men exhibited in their efforts to insure the rights of an overlooked segment of our society left an indelible imprint on me, one that I found myself emphasizing to students as we studied the literature of our great nation. When I became superintendent, I could no longer ignore a practice that had nagged at my sense of right since my early days in Calhoun County-grouping public school students by race (or similar arbitrary reasons).

Traditionally in Calhoun County, African-American students were clustered into lower sections, while most white students were channeled into upper sections-those top levels designated as college preparatory. This "tracking" usually began as early as kindergarten.

While many parents, educators, and community leaders saw tracking as a relatively benign practice allowing greater "same-race" socializing, it became obvious, after scrutinizing all available data, that 70-75% of the minority students were being tracked into slower sections, where low teacher expectations and a watered-down curriculum are standard. Children tended to be tracked at age five, and tended to remain in these tracks throughout their school careers. By the time children took their second or third grade standardized tests, most students were performing-almost miraculously--at or near their arbitrarily assigned level. They had, indeed, lived up, or down, to teacher and school expectations.

How can such unfair and inequitable practices exist in our schools in 1996? For many years I worked in the schools, literally in the middle of gross inequities, never suspecting the extent and severity of these inequities. Even as a superintendent, access to relevant data was not always easy, and the power to correct sometimes quite limited. The parent, the student, the lay person, therefore, can oftentimes only trust and hope that officials are acting fairly. As 15,000 separate American school systems get ever-increasing local control, and strong national standards become less realizable, school officials must take a courageous role by not catering to the whims of special interest groups. They must make certain that millions of students not have their chances for equal opportunity nipped in the bud.

“This is one country," said President Kennedy. "It has become one country because all of us, all of the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to ten percent of the population, 'You can't have that right--your children can’t have a chance to develop themselves.’.... I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that.”

I worry that this ten percent has drastically increased in the last several decades. Can we have a viable democracy, a unified country, if we assume that a fair, equitable, quality education is something that only a privileged segment of American children might receive?

Numerous people have asked, "Would you take the same course of action if you could start it all over again, or would you take a safer, less controversial stance?" My comment is always the same. "There is not one action I would change. As the chief advocate for children in my county, I carefully made each decision for the well-being and betterment of these children, and I would have to take a similar course though the consequences be many times as formidable.”

Hopefully, this award will not become an end in and of itself, but rather a vehicle for improving the human condition in some way. Might we all, too, accept the continuing challenge that the spirit of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award inspires, serving as models to all - but especially to our children.

In ending, let me add that to me this lantern also symbolizes the torch of freedom that blazes in the words and deeds of courageous men and women. It represents a glimmer of hope to the underdog, the downtrodden of whom folk singer Bob Dylan sings in "Chimes of Freedom.” As long as I remain in the school superintendent's office in Calhoun County, Georgia, it will be displayed as a reminder, not so much for any personal courage I myself may have shown, but as a symbol of the courage of those, who, though unrecognized here today, have played a significant role in effecting change. May their courage, like yours, serve as a model to others like them in every part of our great country.

Remarks of School Superintendent Corkin Cherubini, 1996 Profile in Courage Award Recipient, May 28, 1996.