Students, staff and school district officials remembered Martin Luther King, Jr. by participating in the annual Unity Parade and Celebration in Long Beach last Saturday. Playing a prominent role in the weekend’s festivities was former Board of Education President Bobbie Smith. She earned a standing ovation for a keynote speech at the Interfaith and Intercultural Celebration, where she discussed the importance of a good education.
Among the parade participants were members of the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education, LBUSD Superintendent Christopher J. Steinhauser, school marching bands, dance and cheer teams, and many other student groups.
Smith addressed an audience of more than 200 at Gospel Memorial Church of God in Christ in Long Beach. The retired educator was the first African American member on LBUSD’s school board, where she served from 1988 to 2004. She completed four terms as president on the school board during major reforms that earned national recognition for the school district. In 2014, Long Beach’s Bobbie Smith Elementary School was named after her.
Smith’s speech, “Leading the Way to a Just and Compassionate Society,” detailed the progress she has witnessed in society and in public schools during her 83 years:
“Leading the way to a just and compassionate society; as we do this, I want to challenge you to dream big. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for spending your Sunday here at the Interfaith and Intercultural Celebration. Thank you to Gospel Memorial Church for hosting us, and thank you to the South Coast Interfaith Council, for having faith in me as your keynote speaker today. It is indeed an honor to be with all of you as we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy.
“The very name of this wonderful event gleams with hope – the Interfaith and Intercultural Celebration. It’s quite a contrast to some of the things I experienced while growing up in Mississippi. Back then, there was a lot less mixing of cultures and faiths.
“That was a long time ago, when African American children had to attend separate schools from white children. Most of us were children of sharecroppers trying to make a living by growing corn, sweet potatoes, peanuts and cotton.
“I never dreamed that one day I’d have a school named after me or be a keynote speaker at an event like this. But I did have dreams of a better life, and I was fortunate to have caring teachers and a family that broke free from the cycle of poverty.
“When I finished eighth grade at age 13, there was no high school in my Mississippi community. So I traveled sixty miles away from home to finish high school. During that time, I had to work to cover the cost of my room and board.
“After high school, I also worked my way through college. Mississippi was so segregated at that time that the state government paid African Americans to get their graduate and professional training outside the state, so I took advantage of the situation and earned my master’s degree from the University of Illinois.
“So I was doing OK, all things considered. But there was more work to be done. And the weather in Illinois is just so cold. Some of you native Californians may find this hard to believe, but it’s so cold in Illinois that you can’t grow lemons and avocados in your back yard there. That type of situation is just not acceptable.
“My husband and I started thinking about California. His name was Herbert, or Herb Smith. He was my high school sweetheart. He was also, by the way, a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. In fact, he’s still listed on the Globetrotters website on their all-time roster: Herbert Smith, six-foot-four inches tall, from Jackson State.
“The two of us headed to sunny Southern California.
“Unfortunately our timing was not good. The night in 1965 when we drove into Los Angeles was the night that Watts exploded into riots.
“As many of you know, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was in full swing as Los Angeles and the entire nation were struggling to reconcile the realities of urban America with the ideals of this nation and the ideals of Dr. King.
“Dr. King’s dream, which he said was deeply rooted in the American Dream, was that one day this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
“As I told the children at Bobbie Smith Elementary school during the renaming ceremony about a year ago, Dr. King’s dream is a very big dream. It’s easier said than done, and we’re still working on it.
“Too many people of color remain trapped in a cycle of poverty here in the wealthiest nation on earth. Too many people of color remain distrustful of our system of justice, as recent cases of brutality have led some to wonder how far we’ve really come.
“As a large, urban setting, Long Beach faces its challenges, of course. But in Long Beach, we still have a chance to pursue Dr. King’s dream, and we should never take that opportunity for granted.
“Dignity and equality come from a good education. Once you get a good education, no one can take that away, ever.
“Our young people have tremendous opportunities right here in Long Beach schools, which are recognized as some of the best in the country and even in the world.
“I am proud of how our entire community has come together over the past 20 years – our K-12 school system, our community college and our state university, along with the city and the mayor’s office, business leaders and so many community groups to support education in this city. I was honored to be a part of that work, and I am so gratified that our educators in Long Beach continue to build on our success here.
“Regarding education, Dr. King, said, ‘We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.’
“That is the type of education that so many good people in Long Beach, many of them participating in this weekend’s parade and other celebrations, are working diligently to provide our young people. I know, because even though I’ve been retired for a few years, I watch their work with great interest.
“I always encourage today’s youngsters to take advantage of the great opportunities in our schools. If you work hard, you never know where it will take you. It’ll probably take you beyond your wildest dreams. I speak from experience.
“Education is a cause that I devoted my life to, with 16 years on the school board here in Long Beach. Before that, I worked for many years at Long Beach City College, including as head librarian.
“After all these years, I still believe that education is the key to a rewarding life. The past few months have been so rewarding and heart warming for me in many ways. Who would have thought that a poor girl from segregated Mississippi would one day have a school named after her? It happened right here in Long Beach.
“And in September, I was honored along with 11 other African American women as part of a collection of historical profiles, photos and other artifacts that were displayed at the Main Library during an exhibit called “Breaking Through, Lighting the Way.” Much of the historical information remains available on the Breaking Through, Lighting the Way website.
“And last month, Mayor Robert Garcia and the City Council were kind enough to honor me with a key to the city, right alongside former Governor Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria.
“It’s moments like those that give me optimism. It’s not just about the personal recognition, though it’s always nice to know that people appreciate the work that you devoted your life to. These moments also are very important because they reinforce the whole idea of thinking big and dreaming big.
“I will never forget the school renaming ceremony for Smith Elementary School, formerly Burnett Elementary. All of the big-wigs were there. The superintendent, Chris Steinhauser, was there. Incidentally, back when I was librarian at City College, Chris Steinhauser was a student there, and now here he was bestowing this great honor upon me. Things have a way of coming full circle in life.
“The former superintendent, Carl Cohn, also was there at the school renaming ceremony. My friend Felton Williams, who is now the school board president, was there. Everyone was there. Even my friend, Grammy-honored singer Thelma Houston, who attended the school as a child, stopped by to sing 'God Bless America,' and she got a tremendous response from the audience. You know, she won the Grammy for best female R&B performance back in 1977 for that song, 'Don’t Leave Me This Way.'
“She happens to be a friend of the family, so she sang 'God Bless America' for me and all the people who came to support me that day. It was a memory of a lifetime.
“Thelma is a very soulful singer. When she sings 'God Bless America,' she really means it.
“Today, as we celebrate Dr. King and his dream, I say 'God Bless America,' too. And I really mean it. Because despite all of our challenges and setbacks and our halting pace of change, we have, over time, made significant progress. Having now begun my ninth decade, I have lived long enough to personally witness a lot of changes.
“A few years after I attended school in Mississippi, the United States Supreme Court ruled that schools could no longer separate African American children from other students based on the color of their skin. Last year marked the 60th anniversary of that decision, the landmark Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling. How far we have come since then.
“When I was on the school board here, Long Beach schools won the top national prize for public education – the National Broad Prize for Urban Education. I was proud because of what that prize meant. It recognized that our school district, of all the big-city school districts in the nation, had done the best job closing achievement gaps, or the differing levels of academic achievement among various racial and socioeconomic groups of students. That honor did not happen by accident. It takes a lot of work to improve student achievement when you’re dealing with challenges of language, poverty and other issues that so many of our families deal with in Long Beach. We won that prize back in 2003.
“Today, students here are doing even better than when the school district won that big national prize. Graduation rates in Long Beach are up for the third year in a row, with students here outperforming their peers countywide and statewide. That’s an indication that in our schools, more kids are beating the odds. In fact, the school district’s African American and Latino students also outperformed their counterparts at the county and state levels, and they’re starting to outperform white students at some of our high schools.
“It’s not a competition between races, but what we’re trying to do here his reduce those achievement gaps. And in Long Beach, that work involves a process of continual improvement and collaboration among our K-12 and higher education systems. It’s the kind of work that takes dedication and patience, but we have to keep trying because it is our moral obligation to give every young person an equal chance to get a good education.
“As Dr. King envisioned, I still believe that this nation can be the beacon of equity and hope that it was intended to be – for immigrants fleeing war and poverty in their homelands – and for anyone in America who dreams of a better way of life. We in Long Beach and in this country still have the capacity to reject narrow attitudes and instead think big and dream big.
“There are lots of people in this community thinking and dreaming big every day, and taking action to make those dreams a reality. In my experience, if you continue to do that, you never know what great things might come your way.
“Thank you, Dr. King, for your enduring legacy and for inspiring big dreams among people who come from all walks of life.
“And thank you everyone, for your warm reception today. I encourage all of you to continue thinking big and dreaming big. I’m certain that Dr. King would not have it any other way.”
Smith concluded her speech by reciting a poem by Douglas Malloch:
If you can't be a pine on the top of the hill,
Be a scrub in the valley — but be
The best little scrub by the side of the rill;
Be a bush if you can't be a tree.
If you can't be a bush be a bit of the grass,
And some highway happier make;
If you can't be a muskie then just be a bass —
But the liveliest bass in the lake!
We can't all be captains, we've got to be crew,
There's something for all of us here,
There's big work to do, and there's lesser to do,
And the task you must do is the near.
If you can't be a highway then just be a trail,
If you can't be the sun be a star;
It isn't by size that you win or you fail —
Be the best of whatever you are!