President Bush shows support for

Teach For America Program

amidst terrorist threats

by Tomi Morris Johnson.  Photos by Kurk Johnson.  ©2002 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.


January 31, 2002, Atlanta, GA…On the eve of Black History Month, President George W. Bush came to Atlanta’s inner city, rode down MLK Drive, and stepped into a smolderingly hot, un-air-conditioned, high school gymnasium filled with over 2,500 people.  He came to address the importance of teaching and volunteerism, but added a war cry:  terrorists would not defeat the nation. 


Bush stands with TFA Pres. Wendy Kopp, Sec. of Education Dr. Rod Paige,

BTWHS Principal Dr. Shirley Kilgore, and platform guests.


Students from the predominately black Booker T. Washington High School (BTWHS) awaited President Bush along with 30 children from Mary Jane McLeod Bethune Elementary School, hundreds of media personnel, the secret service, local police, dogs wearing badges, and a passel of politicians. Some students were asked to give up their seats so that Congressman and other politicians could be accommodated.


“These children are studying social studies, political science and other aspects of government,” said Rosemary Hamer, Principal of Bethune Elementary School in College Park. “They are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders delighted to meet the President.  They’ve been asking me, ‘Where’s Mr. Bush, and when is he coming?’ Do you see their faces?  This brings to reality what they see on T.V and is a great comment on careers.  It’s important for our children to have real life experiences tied to what they are learning at school.”


Bethune Elementary School teachers and students waited two hours for President Bush.


Approximately four minutes of Bush’s 20-minute speech was devoted to education. The remainder of his remarks centered on saving the world from the evils of terrorism and his willingness to do everything within his power to win the war. Maybe his emphasis on terrorism, which overshadowed his education message, suggests Bush is privy to information we do not know.  Maybe he came to talk about the real threat looming over our lives: terror, not mis-education.



“Nice to be here at the home of the mighty Bulldogs,” began Bush’s opening remarks.  “Glad I’m not on the other team,” clearly reiterated his winning spirit. He said that the terrorists on September 11 had underestimated us.  “My, my, were they mistaken…Naw, we’re strong,” he added. “We have liberated women and children in Afghanistan…I’m proud of this great country,” Bush added.



“The best homeland defense is to find the enemy where he hides and bring him to justice,” Bush continued. He praised the military and the ROTC program at BTWHS, saying, “Your government will stand firmly behind you…whatever it takes…we will pay…It’s such an honor to be the President of such a nation,” he continued. Bush said education was a good weapon against evil. There was a slight murmur from the crowd when Bush said schools like Booker T. Washington High, an inner city school, had problems getting qualified teachers that were being provided by the Teach for America Program.


Bush heralded Teach For American Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp for her efforts. “Out of an idea came the desire to convince folks to teach in schools that are having trouble getting teachers. And she has succeeded way beyond what people thought a single person could do.” A means to help children attain educational excellence, national corps’s members agree to a two-year urban and rural public school assignment. With the program operating in 17 cities, Los Angeles has the highest number of members, 224, while there are 25 members on the New Mexico Navajo Nation reservation. 


Teach For America (TFA) is the national corps of recent, handpicked college graduates who commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools.  In 2001 alone, the program secured $20 million in investments and is one of five organizations actively supported by First Lady Laura Bush. With approximately 8,000 teachers helping nearly one million students all across America, Atlanta has 58 corps members. Booker T. Washington High School on White House Drive was the perfect location for President Bush to give his address.


Bush also praised his appointee, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, an African American and former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District (HISD).  Bush said Paige, who was in attendance, was one who “doesn’t dwell on theory, but actually understands how education works…One lesson I have learned is that a school functions well when it has a fine principal,” Bush said before kissing Principal of BTWHS Dr. Shirley Kilgore on the cheek. Urging students to become teachers, Bush said, “Teaching is a noble, important profession.  When looking for a career, please give teaching a consideration.”


These kids must receive a quality education, according to 2000 Milken Education Award winner Joyce C. Spraggs, Principal of Sweetwater Middle School in Gwinnett County and a graduate of Boston University. “They have to go to school; they’re Black,” she said.  “They don’t have to be geniuses, but they have to have a lot of initiative and not let the color of their skins stop them from doing whatever they want to do,” said the former Young Democrat.



Bush was standing in the shadow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who walked the halls of the school in the 1940’s before going to Morehouse College at the age of 15.  In a recent proclamation honoring the life of Dr. King, President Bush stated, “Dr. King's words were not just a call to change our laws, but they also served as a challenge to all Americans to change their hearts by refusing to judge people by their skin color or their national origin, by their race or their religion.”  In his speech, Bush said that Dr. King taught us a powerful lesson about love; however, he failed to mention that Dr. King was pro-peace and anti-war. 


Statue of Booker T. Washington outside school symbolizes quote, “Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having except

as the result of hard work.” Dr. Booker T. Washington, the school’s namesake, was considered a pacifist/Uncle Tom by

some and a great educator by others. 


The thing that struck me the most about the audience was that the student body, which seemed segregated and unmistakably minority, were sitting in the shadow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who may not have agreed with Bush’s war agenda.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pro peace and anti war.  King was a fighter against injustice AND war.  Staunchly against The Vietnam War, King said in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, New York City, April 1967, “…life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides… If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”  Of course, Dr. King himself was felled by a terrorist/assassin’s bullet in Memphis, TN while trying to help striking garbage workers.


In a recent proclamation honoring the life of Dr. King, President Bush stated, “Dr. King's words were not just a call to change our laws, but they also served as a challenge to all Americans to change their hearts by refusing to judge people by their skin color or their national origin, by their race or their religion.” Perhaps Bush should keep these words in mind before he talks about people living in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as he did in his State of the Union Address two days ago.




Remembering Dr. King’s mission, we must ask ourselves, “What part does education play in limiting the have-nots? Was not Dr. King a supporter of no barriers?  Should people in America be judged by the work they can do rather than what degree they have from what university?” Bush himself was reported to have been a poor student at Yale and Harvard, but he still managed to become President of the United States.




Local and national media were on hand during Bush’s speech as were members of the Presidential Press Corps.


“It’s not a black issue, a brown issue, a yellow issue or a white issue; it’s an economic issue,” spouted King follower Jesse Jackson at a press conference in 1979 in Kentucky.  How much things remain the same.



There was a protester standing outside the school with an anti-war poster. Attorney Don Edwards of Cascade, a member of the Interfaith Atlanta Coalition for Justice and Peace in the World, said his organization was formed after 9/11 to try to turn the drumbeat of war into a drumbeat for peace. “Do you think MLK would be for Bush’s war agenda?” he asked me. When asked if a terrorist hurt his grandkids, would he want revenge, Edwards said, “First, I would try to get them medical help.  Then I would seek justice in a court of law.  I wouldn’t turn around and bomb the terrorist’s wife and kids.”


For more information on becoming a teaching professional in Teach For America, go to the website:



Photo Commentary

Question:  Booker T. Washington High School is probably one of the most segregated schools in the nation.  If asked to define “glass ceiling in government,” how would you explain it to these students?


ROTC Csm. Frederick Jones, Fayetteville, GA; Ltc. Ken Baskett, Marietta, GA; and 1sg. Frank Carter, Stockbridge, GA



“We’re honored to have the President at our school.  This maintains the tradition started by Martin Luther King who was a student here.  Now we have the President! In our ROTC program, our cadets are exposed to diversity.  Our kids are involved with a variety of races in activities ranging from summer camp to drill competitions.”

Ltc. Ken Baskett, Marietta, GA


“I don’t think being a student here keeps them from obtaining their highest goals.  Going to school here is not limiting.”

Csm. Frederick Jones, Fayetteville, GA




“There have been glass ceilings, but these students are part of the solution. With affirmative action, we have appointed department heads and top managers in state government.  We’ve gone from 27th in the nation to 9th in a period of 2 years.  If these students are dedicated to leadership. Government should mirror the face of the citizens.  If they believe that, they can do it!”

Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, Atlanta, GA





“I don’t have a lot of experience in government, I’m fresh out of college, but it is my perception that there is a glass ceiling for minorities and women in government which has been run by White males.  However, the opportunities have expanded, especially in the last 20 years, and it’s continuing to improve.”

Rebecca Friedman, Teach For America, Grant Park, GA



“I support the President’s non-partisan agenda. My experience with the military, I’m ex-Air force, and in civilian life… I don’t perceive myself only reaching so far. We can reach as high as we can believe.”

Emanuel Williams, Teacher, Douglasville, GA

“The glass ceiling is obvious.  Success takes luck and hard work.  Never give up.  Sometimes you can break through that glass ceiling.  Look at our corporate examples: Ken Chenault of American Express, Richard Parsons of AOL, and many others.”

Joyce C. Spraggs, Principal, Sweetwater Middle School, Gwinnett County, GA




“This president has demonstration in his actions and policies that this (glass ceiling) is not the case. I’m confident that his administration will produce real results in unifying the country and not dividing it for political expediency.”

Georgia Senator Tom Payne, Minority Whip



“The glass ceiling means there are limits in government, and they’re not expected to go farther.  We must continue to strive to break the glass ceiling.”

Georgia Congressman John Lewis, 5th Congressional District


“The glass ceiling means that America, known as the land of the free…does not offer freedom for everyone.  Students need to understand why this is true and what the challenges are that we need to overcome most.”

Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, 4th Congressional District (pictured with her father, Georgia Hs. of Rep. J. E. McKinney)


  Lisa Borders and Anna Siefken from Teach For America


Georgia Senator Max Cleland, who is up for re-election, posed with well wishers. He is an example of the ability to break through the glass ceiling by the handicapped.


“The president gave a very good speech highlighting the fact that education is the fundamental right of every child. In order to define ‘glass ceiling in government’ you would have to agree that there is a glass ceiling.”

Lisa Borders, Teach For America, Atlanta Advisory Board


“There have been many graduates of this school who have gone on to greatness.  Education is the way to make things happen.  Without it, there is a glass ceiling.”

Anna Siefken, Teach For America


This information is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous. All rights reserved.