Chirlane McCray, the first lady of New York City, called education “the civil rights issue of today” at a Black History Month event in East Elmhurst’s First Baptist Church last Wednesday night. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Bronx, Queens) hosted the event and honored three African American community activists from his district.
McCray was born in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, ruling segregated schools unconstitutional. She spoke of her parents’ “bold move” in sending her to schools where she was the only black student.
She was bullied and her social life suffered, but she saw the differences in the opportunities she had and those of her friends in other communities.
McCray lamented the fact that New York City schools are now among the nation’s most segregated.
“This is not news to anyone with even passing familiarity with our schools,” McCray added. “Your ZIP code matters.”
McCray promoted the universal prekindergarten plan her husband’s administration is working on as a way to “change lives for generations to come.”
She said studies have shown 90 percent of brain development occurs during the earliest years, and that better quality pre-K helps children succeed in school and later in life.
“This is true for all children,” McCray said. “The benefits are more pronounced for the most vulnerable.”
McCray also spoke of the need for more afterschool programs for middle schoolers who are unsupervised during afterschool hours.
“I’m not the only parent fired up about getting this going,” McCray said, noting that celebrities such as Alicia Keys and Gloria Steinem have endorsed the mayor’s plan. “More and more New Yorkers are throwing support behind these programs. Get with the program. We can create one New York where all New Yorkers can succeed.”
McCray praised Crowley’s honorees Kelly Blue, Monique Johnson and Marvin Jeffcoat for their successes and called them “proof of how much our young people can accomplish.”
Blue, the program director at Corona CYO Basketball, was honored for his work with young people.
“Kelly instills in young people pride, self-confidence and strength of character,” Crowley said.
The Congressman honored Johnson, the resident council president of Throggs Neck Houses in the Bronx, for improving security and demanding that the city housing authority provide its residents with basic amenities like heat and hot water.
The final honoree was Sgt. First Class Jeffcoat, a Queens County Veterans of Foreign War post commander, who earned medals for his service in Kuwait, where he participated in Operation Desert Storm. Since his retirement, he has helped servicemen upon their return home. He is also a member of Community Board 2 and a cub master with the local Scout troop.
Crowley said he will bring McCray’s words back to Washington, DC, where he will work to combat the “injustice that is creeping back into our society.” He called for increasing unemployment benefits, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women and passing immigration reform to “bring back the dream of America” so that it will not be, as Langston Hughes wrote, “a dream deferred.”
“Welcome to a place that would welcome you,” Assemblyman Jeff Aubry (D-Corona) said, as he described the deep connection East Elmhurst and Corona had with the civil rights movement.
Malcolm X, Willie Mays and Louie Armstrong among others lived in the area, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. interned at the First Baptist Church, where the event took place.