Advancing the Dream Through Education

On April 4, we remember the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose leadership and valor during the Civil Rights Movement continue to inspire many Americans to fight for justice and equality. Today we owe it to Dr. King and future generations to keep moving forward and demanding change that will help us get closer to Dr. King's vision of justice and equality for all Americans.

Through his speeches, Dr. King professed his belief that increasing educational opportunities can help overcome the obstacles we face in our communities. In order for us to continue progress in America, we face the stark reality that many blacks suffer from poverty and make up a disproportionately large number of the prison population. As a high school dropout, I understand the value of education: A second chance at obtaining my high school diploma through the G.I. Bill led me to attend college and law school, and allowed me the opportunity to serve in Congress.

A quality education grants us the ability to fight the war on ignorance and poverty. Today, a striking 38.2 percent of black children live in poverty. Studies have shown that 11 percent of those born in poverty have attained a bachelor's degree, granting them greater possibilities of attaining success and finding better-paying jobs. Highly successful individuals such as Oprah Winfrey, who was born into poverty, have proven that hard work and education allows for our community to prosper and rise out of impoverished conditions.

Currently blacks account for 40 percent of the 2.2 million prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 60 percent of black men who are high school dropouts have been incarcerated by their mid-30's. More opportunities and experiences opened through higher education can deter our youths to stay out of jail. I am a firm believer that upon release, ex-offenders should be afforded a second chance to become productive citizens by providing rehabilitation and education that will help them join the workforce. This is why I authored the Second Chance Act and continue to push it through Congress.

One way of improving economic and social status of blacks is through encouragement in demanding careers, such as in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). In this world of advanced technology there is a desperate need for blacks to advance in these fields. In 2011, only 7 percent of bachelor's degree awarded to black students were of STEM subjects. Only 1.2% of computer-science doctoral students were black. We must encourage our youth to follow the footsteps of pioneers, such as Harlem native, Patricia Bath, the first black woman to patent a medical invention in 1988, and Roy L. Clay Sr., the "Black Godfather" of Silicon Valley, who created and headed the Hewlett-Packard computer division in 1965, long before Bill Gates founded Microsoft. Black students are missing out on prime opportunities to contribute to society and build prosperity in their own lives and their communities.

Dr. King would be proud at the milestones we have marked thus far, from the second inauguration of President Barack Obama to the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the unveiling of Rosa Parks's statue in the U.S. Capitol. Today as we commemorate the tragedy of Dr. King's death, let's honor his life through our continued efforts to empower and uplift our communities. Encouragement of higher education for our youth is critical to the success of our collective future.

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