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A lifetime champion of educational equity

Margarita Persico

Robert Marshall has taken care of his community for decades, and at the age of 60, he shows no signs of slowing down.

These days, when he’s not busy as a substitute teacher at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School and at Boston Day and Evening Academy, both in Roxbury, you can usually find him putting up yard signs for the Barack Obama presidential campaign or working the phone banks for the local politicians he supports. If you miss him there, he’s probably out fundraising, going door-to-door to talk with folks about their political leanings, or dropping off literature at churches.

Marshall retired in 2007 after spending 35 years with the Boston Public Schools (BPS). But by the looks of things, retirement didn’t take.

“Bob is a person who has taken the community on his shoulders and in his heart,” says Jean McGuire, executive director of the Metropolitan Council For Educational Opportunity Inc., better known as METCO.

Longtime BPS educator Barbara Fields hailed Marshall’s dedication to children — not only within the school environment or in the classroom, where he taught special education, but also in the outside community.

“He also has gone beyond his classroom advocacy and has been extremely active in the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, where he also continues to promote equity in education and opportunities for children,” adds Fields, a 33-year BPS veteran who retired from her position as the system’s senior equity officer last June.

Marshall’s affinity for educational equity started when he was a boy growing up in Fair Haven, N.J., where he was born. Marshall lived in “almost a Shangri-La type of existence,” he says, a time when the town was integrating and accepting the small community of African Americans. While his older brothers experienced segregated schools, spending grades one through eight in a separate one-room school, Marshall attended an integrated school, where he says he made lifelong friends.

But Shangri-La is a fictional place, and things eventually got more complicated. Marshall says he started sensing inequality soon after graduating from Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School in 1965.

It started with a job.

“A friend of mine, a white guy … got an offer to work on a tugboat for the summer … in New York City,” he recalls. The offer was contingent on an interview. Marshall offered to tag along with his friend; he needed a job, too.

The prospective employers briefly spoke with Marshall and his friend, and said they would get back to them. Several weeks later, Marshall learned that neither he nor his friend got the job. The reason? Marshall’s skin color, according to his friend, who was questioned for bringing a person of color to the interview.

“That was one of the first tastes that I got, being slapped with racism,” Marshall says.

After attending Tarkio College, in Tarkio, Mo., for one year and taking a semester off, Marshall moved to Boston in 1967 to attend Boston University, where he majored in history and government and played football. He found another sheltered environment at BU — the only people of color on campus, he says, were foreign exchange students or athletes.

Like many other young black men of his time, Marshall identifies the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the call for him to make a difference in the lives of other students. Marshall says he participated in a grassroots movement through the university’s Umoja House to bring about racial equality at BU, demanding a commitment to increasing minority enrollment, more scholarship money for students of color and the development of black studies curricula.

Marshall takes pride in the movement’s achievements.

“In September, there was an influx of blacks [and], a little later, Latino students coming into Boston University,” he says.

He calls that drive his initiation into politics, and the beginning of his long fight for student and community rights.

“I got involved — blooded [into politics] in Boston,” says Marshall, who compared the Boston of three decades ago to Southern states where Jim Crow segregation had taken hold.

“It was almost like being in Mississippi or Alabama,” he says.

After graduating from Boston University in 1972, Marshall began teaching at Mary E. Curley Middle School in Jamaica Plain, where he taught history. Marshall says he was able to get that job because the federal government continued to monitor the education arena for equal employment opportunities.

But the struggle extended beyond fair job opportunities to the issue of fair education for students of color. The protests of 1963 and 1964 preceded the Operation Exodus busing plan of 1965, which with state funding grew the following year into METCO, a voluntary busing program established to improve educational opportunities for urban students of color by giving them access to often-superior suburban schools.

“Busing forced the system to take a strong look at itself [and ask], ‘What are we doing in terms of educating children, particularly black and Latino [children]?’” says Marshall. “It forced the system to come to grips with the whole issue of education, and … equal access to a quality education.”

He remembers well the many struggles black educators faced in those days, including hiring lawyers such as eventual U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner to sue the Boston Teachers Union in 1981-1982 to rectify what they argued was under-representation of black teachers in Boston schools. But it’s a loss that looms largest in Marshall’s memory — the 1991 decision that changed the structure of the Boston School Committee and, in his eyes, significantly weakened the community’s involvement in the education of its children.

Prior to 1991, the city’s school committee had been a 13-member body elected by voters. That year, then-Mayor Raymond L. Flynn and the City Council petitioned the state Legislature and then-Gov. William F. Weld to alter the system. Under the proposed plan, the mayor of Boston would appoint a seven-member school committee from nominees submitted by a panel of citizens, rather than allowing city residents to vote for the board’s members. The governor and Legislature approved the petition in July 1991.

“One of my saddest moments,” says Marshall.

The memory also saddens METCO’s McGuire, an often outspoken critic of the BPS system who says that Boston’s parents lost a great deal of power over their children’s education with that decision.

“The Boston School Committee has voiceless people. None of them [speak] independently; all serve at the humor of the mayor,” said McGuire.

A number of possible explanations for the change have been offered over the years. McGuire has one.

“The city was turning black and Latino. They didn’t like it,” she says. “They wanted to keep the power with [the] status quo.”

But McGuire also reserves some blame for others in the community. She says a group of black ministers gave the people’s vote away by supporting the 1991 measure.

“In 1991, [they] … stood on the steps of the State House with Mayor Raymond L. Flynn to support what was then a bill to abolish the elected committee,” reported the Boston Globe in Sept. 1996. “The measure eventually became law and gave birth to the current committee, but black clergy were roundly criticized by elected officials for seeming too accommodating to City Hall.”

Fields, McGuire and Marshall all said they believed that losing the right to vote for school committee members silenced the voice of Boston’s African American community.

“You come from the Great Migration, you fight for the vote, and you give it away to a mayor who knows nothing about [the] community,” adds McGuire, who became the second African American elected to serve on the Boston School Committee in 1981.

As McGuire discusses Marshall and the committee, her talk turns to John D. O’Bryant, an ardent advocate for Boston’s children whose name graces Northeastern University’s African American Institute and John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science. In 1977, O’Bryant preceded McGuire as the committee’s first black member, and she sees an indelible link between the two men.

“Bob [Marshall] is connected to reality … he is the closest thing we have to John D. O’Bryant,” she concludes.

With such a valuable legacy to uphold, Marshall continues to serve his community with a single-minded purpose. If anyone knows about that, it’s his wife, Brenda Marshall, 54.

“My husband … has been doing this work, rallying around what is right for 20 or 30 years, and has not swayed away from any challenges that he has encountered,” she says.

Not even the challenges of time. As busy as Marshall was when he worked as a teacher, he found time to help on campaigns organized by activists like O’Bryant, McGuire and Mel King, and has assisted a number of elected officials, including former City Councilor Felix Arroyo, current Councilors Chuck Turner and Charles C. Yancey, and state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

Marshall had to slow down for a while last year after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and started radiation treatment in September. But even the ravages of disease offered only a momentary speed bump; as soon as he felt better, he began exercising four to five times a week.

Now, he says, he considers himself stronger than ever — and that’s a good thing. Because there are yard signs to post, doors to be knocked on, phone calls to make.
“I am really proud of him,” says Brenda Marshall.