Still working for a better future: Alan Page discusses education, racism, Confederate monuments
Page aims to persuade the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would alter the state's educational mandate, ensuring all children have access to a quality education.
MANKATO — The word football didn't come up a single time Thursday in 75 minutes of discussion with Alan Page during Minnesota State University's annual Pan African Conference.
But the number 88 probably flashed at least briefly through the mind of Tim Berry, a Minnesota native, when he expressed his excitement at the beginning of a conversation in which Page talked about education, the achievement gap, the increasingly open bigotry in America, Confederate monuments, the constitutional right to an education and more.
"I grew up in Minnesota," said Berry, interim associate vice president of faculty affairs and equity initiatives at MSU. "You are just one of the pinnacle figures ... ."
Page made no reference to his Hall of Fame career with the Minnesota Vikings, the intellectual drive that prompted him to earn a law degree even while in the midst of a professional football career, the numerous marathons he completed, his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom or even his 22 years as a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
But at age 76, Page made clear his devotion to future generations — both Minnesota students in general and his own grandchildren.
Toward the end of what was meant to be a 90-minute conversation, Page said he had to leave a bit early to pick up some grandkids from school.
"I'm on bus duty this afternoon," he said.
A paramount duty
Even if the transportation trimmed short the discussion, Page quietly but forcefully made his points to those attending the virtual conference.
Working with Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari, Page aims to persuade the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would alter the state's educational mandate.
The provision now in the state constitution goes back to the document's creation in 1857: "The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state."
The wording focuses on the system and the system's needs. Page's proposed amendment puts children first, literally:
"All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state."
The amendment goes on to declare it to be "a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right." And it states that the amendment in no way infringes on the right of a parent to choose "a private, religious, or home school as an alternative."
The focus on the student would transform how schools operate, requiring a quality education for each student regardless of skin color, disability or socioeconomic status, Page said.
"All children can learn," he said. "And all children should have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential, whatever that is."
The gap in achievement between white students and students of color, a theme of this year's Michael T. Fagin Pan African Conference, is particularly wide in Minnesota and has been recognized as a serious problem for decades, according to Page. The system, however, has stayed the same.
"We can't continue doing what we've been doing and expect a different result."
Power of education
Page noted that poor white students are also on the wrong side of the achievement gap, and he said the issue should be seen as critical even beyond the personal ramifications to poorly educated young Minnesotans.
Leaving so many people behind is unsustainable for the state, he said, because it weakens the economy, overwhelms welfare programs and creates widespread social problems.
The drafters of Minnesota's Constitution in 1857 "could not have conceived of the world we live in today," Page said. "We have the chance to be the founding fathers and mothers of the future."
Page said his belief in the power of constitutional rights goes back to his childhood in Canton, Ohio, when he learned of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education, which he described as "the death knell of state-sponsored segregation."
"Even at that young age, I realized something important had happened ... something profound."
The progress that followed needs to be remembered even as Americans must also acknowledge the continued existence of racism, according to Page.
"We are light years advanced from where we were in the 1950s. We still have a long way to go, particularly in the area of education."
Working together to improve schools will also spawn hope. Page, paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr., said people with hope will participate in building a better society because they have faith they will share in its benefits.
"Those without hope are inclined to tear it down," Page said.
When Page and his late wife Diane were raising their four children, overt opposition to racial progress was less common. His grandchildren are growing up in a different America.
"People now feel very comfortable in their bigotry ...," he said. "We thought we'd made much more progress than we had. That's not to suggest we haven't made progress. We have."
The necessity to see both — the ugliness of racism and the continuing hope for a brighter future — is what prompted Alan and Diane Page to collect objects from the Jim Crow era and from the time of slavery. The extensive collection includes a Ku Klux Klan robe, slave collars, and numerous segregation signs — one stating "NO dogs, n----, Mexicans."
The collection also includes works by Black artists created in the same eras, including a funeral banner created after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, one side reading "Uncle Abe, We Will Not Forget You," the other reading, "Our Country Shall Be One Country."
"It's interesting, the word 'artifacts,'" Page said, emphasizing the final syllable. "Facts. That's what these objects represent. Those who would like to deny our history, those who would like to ignore our history, those who would like to think we need to put it behind us.
"Given where we are today, it's important to have these facts so we don't forget."
His collection impacted his opinion on monuments to Confederate leaders.
"It crystallized for me the idea of how we address and deal with statues and monuments — and should we take them down, make them invisible? Well, they are facts," he said.
But if a monument celebrating General Robert E. Lee is to be left in place, then it needs to be made clear what Lee believed and the oppression he fought to preserve, in Page's view.
"Those who are inclined to want to glorify that, I think it is incumbent on us to remind those folks of who he was and what he did."
Which brought the discussion to the debate at MSU over the propriety of the statue of Lincoln in the Centennial Student Union, a statute some Indigenous people want removed because of Lincoln's decision ordering the mass hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato in 1862.
Page conceded that the descendants of the Dakota and the descendants of slaves might have very different views of Lincoln.
Education requires an honest examination of historic figures, even those whom we admire, he said. Doing that allows people to emulate their positive traits and condemn their negative characteristics.
"All in an effort to make the future better," he said.
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