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Betsy DeVos selectively eulogizes Rev. Dwight Montgomery

September 19, 2017

Last Thursday, the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, released this brief statement:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Such a statement begs the question, “why does the Secretary of Education eulogize a Black minister who is part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)?

According to a statement released by the President of the SCLC, Dr. Charles Steele Jr.: 

Montgomery always believed in having a wide variety of educational alternatives available, Dr. Steele said, “because no single, educational approach works for every child.” “He was a charter school advocate, and was passionate about both public schools and alternative education,” he said. “Traditional schools shouldn’t just be a one-way street.”

The statement by the current SCLC president provides a window into why Betsy DeVos might eulogize the recently deceased Rev. Montgomery, but it still only provides a small window.

However, an article by Laura Faith Kebede on Chalkbeat, provides us with more details on why Secretary DeVos felt compelled to release a statement about Rev. Montgomery. 

Kebede writes, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years.

The writer of the Chalkbeat article goes on to say:

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

This statement underscores why Betsy DeVos would eulogize Rev. Montgomery last week. In demonstrates that the Secretary of Education will sing the praises of people who support school voucher programs and those that enter into an alliance with the American Federation for Children

Not surprising, Betsy DeVos did not praise Rev. Montgomery for his recent efforts to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park, shortly after the White Supremacist violence in Charlottesville.  

More importantly, DeVos failed to acknowledge Rev. Montgomery’s work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the national Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign was really about radical redistribution of America’s wealth to the poor, particularly communities of color. Dr. King stated in an SCLC retreat in 1967, his vision for what the Poor People’s Campaign meant for the movement: 

I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.

Somehow, Betsy DeVos chose not to acknowledge Rev. Montgomery’s work against White Supremacy and Capitalism.

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