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Answering the Call: The History of NEA, Part 4

The History of the National Education Association

By Sabrina Holcomb

For over a century, the National Education Association and the American Teachers Association had been on a parallel course for justice and equality for the nation’s schoolchildren—sometimes working together toward a common goal. Last month, we watched as NEA and ATA joined forces to support the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to integrate America’s public schools. In this series’ final installment, we celebrate the historic merger of two great organizations into one single dynamic Association.

A Journey Through Time

Making History. ATA President R.J. Martin and NEA President Richard D. Batchelder (seated) seal the merger. With them (standing left to right) are ATA Executive Secretary Joseph T. Brooks, NEA Executive Secretary William G. Carr, and ATA President-elect Hudson L. Barksdale.  “Outstretched hands must extend on all sides if this unity is to become a reality,” NEA told its members.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed delegates at NEA's 1965 Annual Meeting. NEA President Lois Edinger awarded him an Honorary NEA Life Membership.  

Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, NEA's first Black president, and Braulio Alonso, NEA's first Hispanic president.

Showing Unity. NEA-ATA Joint Committee members gather at the annual meeting in 1961.

Celebrating America. RA delegates of all ethnicities are a living legacy of the NEA-ATA merger.

Sixties Set Stage for Merger

Even for generations of Americans born decades later, the tumultuous 1960s is an iconic period in the nation’s history. As the decade unfolded, an unbelieving nation witnessed the twin assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy, marchers were attacked with tear gas and fire hoses as they rallied for civil rights, college students clashed with police on campuses across the country, and the Vietnam War polarized the nation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech in front of a quarter of a million people at the famous March on Washington, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and assassinated—all before the decade closed. This period of tremendous social change set the stage for the groundbreaking merger that forever changed the face and course of the National Education Association.

NEA and ATA Join Forces

NEA and ATA started working together as advocates for Black education in 1926, forming a Joint Committee to focus on the evaluation and accreditation of Black schools. The partnership was successful, and by the time the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, the Joint Committee had spent four decades fighting gross inequities in the treatment of Black schoolchildren and their teachers. Even the Brown v. Board of Education victory proved to be a two-edged sword: When school districts in 17 states used court-ordered desegregation as an excuse to dismiss hundreds of Black teachers, NEA established a $1 million fund to “protect and promote the professional, civil, and human rights of educators.” This fund and the Joint Committee helped support Black teachers who were fired for participating in the voter registration drives that were central to the civil rights struggles of the ’60s. In a yearlong drive, NEA asked each member of the organized teaching profession to contribute at least one dollar to the fund, and teachers across the country came to the aid of their colleagues.

Countdown to Unity

The Joint Committee first discussed a plan to unify NEA and ATA in 1945, but there was adamant opposition from some affiliates and a lukewarm reception from others. At the time, 16 states and the District of Columbia had separate associations for Black and White teachers. Only four states merged affiliates over the next two decades, and in one last effort to unify the remaining affiliates, delegates at the 1964 Representative Assembly passed a resolution requiring racially segregated affiliates to merge. Finally, after years of intense negotiation, NEA and ATA agreed to merge at the 1966 Representative Assembly.

A Historic Merger

The dramatic and heartfelt merger ceremony took place in Miami Beach, where 13 years earlier NEA had relocated

the convention when the city assured them it would not discriminate against Black delegates. The lights in the great convention hall dimmed to darkness as spotlights focused on five men at a small table on the stage. As the presidents and executive secretaries of NEA and ATA signed a Unification Certificate, delegates sang “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” then erupted into a prolonged standing ovation. Preserving an

ATA tradition, NEA continued to hold a Human and Civil Rights Awards Program to honor individuals and affiliates who expanded educational opportunities for minority students and educators.

The Struggle Continues

Neither the Association nor the country changed overnight. Battles continued to be fought as some affiliates resisted unification, and widespread dismissals and unfair treatment of Black educators persisted. In some communities, schools were burned to prevent desegregation, and many Black students were expelled and injured—even killed. But NEA was able to work more vigorously on behalf of true unity, within the organization and in the schools. NEA set a timetable for the remaining affiliates to merge and met with NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyers and the U.S. Office of Education to develop short- and long-range plans to halt the abuse of teachers and students.

Merger Memories

E.B. Palmer, former executive director of the North Carolina Teachers Association (ATA affiliate), recalls the events surrounding the merger.
“The merger between ATA and NEA was a monumental step. It came at a time when many Whites and Blacks were uneasy about the consequences of integration. ATA members were afraid we’d lose everything—our schools, our principals, and our teachers, who were helping our kids through the process of desegregation. No one knew whether the new melting pot would be successful, but one America meant one America. By merging, NEA and ATA were way ahead of the rest of the country—paving the way for businesses and government to follow their example. By merging with ATA, NEA set the tone for the social fabric of America. Every government agency started holding human relations workshops.”

A Powerful Legacy

The merger between NEA and ATA had long-term implications, not only for Black teachers and students, but for other minority populations, including women. Three months after the merger, NEA sponsored a major conference on bilingual education and the needs of Spanish-speaking students. The NEA conference led directly to the passage of the 1968 Bilingual Education Act—a great legacy for Braulio Alonso, who became NEA’s first Hispanic president in 1967.

In 1968, Elizabeth Duncan Koontz was elected NEA’s first Black president, and NEA established the Human and Civil Rights Division. Committed to helping civil rights law and rhetoric become reality, the Division tackled a variety of issues affecting minority education. Over the next decade, NEA created working task forces that later morphed into four caucuses representing a range of racial and ethnic minorities.

As America’s classrooms grow more racially diverse, the merger that took place 40 years ago has grown more significant and noteworthy. From its inception in 1857—when NEA welcomed Black members four years before the Civil War—to the merger with ATA during the height of the civil rights struggles, the Association has been ahead of its time, crusading for the rights of educators and the children whose lives they touch.

Teachers and Students March 

On the march to Montgomery, NEA staff reporter Howard Carroll interviewed a high school senior who was among the teachers, students, and clergy assaulted for participating in a voter registration rally in Selma a few weeks before.

"I went down to Selma because the teachers, our Black members, played such a big part in the civil rights movement," said Carroll, pictured left with a student marcher. "When I went into the schools and talked to the teachers, I saw the stark differences in their circumstances. It was a tragedy to think that people who were our members were denied the opportunities White educators had. A few weeks before the final march to Montgomery, many teachers had been assaulted when they tried to march across the Pettus Bridge. The march had to be halted because the marchers were overcome by tear gas.”

 Fit to teach, Fit to vote

The NEA-ATA Joint Committee sent leaders and staff to help teachers in Selma, Alabama, launch a voter registration campaign for Black educators under the slogan, “Fit to Teach, Fit to Vote.” The teachers’ campaign provided an opening spark for the voter drives and famous five-day civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King Jr. The national media covering the historic 1965 march set up headquarters at the Alabama Education Association.

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