Paying attention to Dr. King and Nekima Levy Pounds

This column originally was published by ECM/Sun newspapers, 11-25-2015

Paying attention to Dr. King and Nekima Levy-Pounds

by Joe Nathan

St. Thomas law professor and Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy- Pounds might be studied 20-30 years from now the way students read about some of the great civil rights leaders of the 1960s. Of course, it’s too early to tell. But her passion, eloquence and insight already are attracting attention throughout the country.

Levy-Pounds is controversial. While he’s generally revered today, Martin Luther King Jr. was criticized, questioned and reviled by millions when he led marches, sit-ins and other protests.

The same is true of Levy-Pounds. She is helping draw attention to some things that should not be acceptable to any Minnesotan.

Let’s start with average black family income. I recently checked with the U.S. Census Bureau, which confirmed a statistic that I read earlier this year. While Minnesota median family income ranks toward the top of the nation, Minnesota African-American families rank 45th, even below Mississippi! Those Census Bureau statistics are available here:

Minnesota’s African-American high school graduation rates also urgently need attention. National Center for Education Statistics data show that as of 2012-13, only 58 percent of Minnesota’s African-American students graduated from high school in four years. That’s below the national average of 71 percent for African-American students, and 81 percent overall. We ranked 47th! (Note: Figures are not available for Idaho.) You can view the data here:

Nekima Levy-Pounds (Photo courtesy of St. Thomas University,

Nekima Levy-Pounds (Photo courtesy of St. Thomas University,

Levy-Pounds strongly advocates for building on strengths of many African-Americans. Again and again, she appeals to Minnesotan’s belief in opportunity, justice and fairness. She’s spoken out for both personal and government responsibility. She’s a big supporter of public school choice and charters, along with Postsecondary Enrollment Options and other forms of dual credit. One of her youngsters attends a charter public school in Minneapolis.

Most recently, she’s helping lead the demand for the release of the video recordings that may provide details of Jamar Clark’s death. A Minneapolis police officer shot him. No one is claiming Clark – or any of us – is a perfect person.

However, many people believe that killing this man was not justified. I have brought coffee and food to the people protesting this death. Over and over, folks there have described frustrations that they have with police.

Levy-Pounds is helping lead the effort to release the videos and get all the facts of this death in the open. Releasing information is permitted, according to Minnesota law, when the investigative agency determines that this “will aid the law enforcement process, promote public safety, or dispel widespread rumor or unrest.”

What she’s doing reminds me a lot of what King, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X and other civil rights leaders did.

They urged that America live up to its ideals. They demanded that we do better. They encouraged others to join in their movement.

As King wrote in his remarkable “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “We must use time creatively in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

King’s letter may seem out of place for suggested holiday reading. He’s responding to ministers who wrote that the sit-ins were “unwise” and “untimely.” It’s a marvelous piece to read or listen to. You can find a recording, as well as the original text, here:

Nekima Levy-Pounds is building on and carrying forward King’s work. You can read more about her here: I think we need to pay attention to her. We will become a “more perfect union” when we do what she and a long line of civil rights advocates urge.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at