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Beatrice “Bebe” Coker: Civil rights leader works for a world ‘the way it’s supposed to be’

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Beatrice “Bebe” Coker has been trying to change how we view education for more than 40 years.

The 84-year-old Delaware civil rights leader, public housing advocate and education activist has had the ear of former Vice President Joe Biden since he was a freshman senator ““ and every governor for decades ““ but after a long career in public service she still has one goal left unaccomplished: readdressing the issues that led to Wilmington’s infamous 1978 busing campaign to desegregate its schools.

She was among those who opposed busing in the 1970s and protested its use in Wilmington. When the courts mandated the busing campaign, however, Coker helped to plan its peaceful implementation.

Several generations later, she is still bothered by the episode though and seeking to make amends. 

Photo by Ron Dubick

“You didn’t desegregate schools, you desegregated school buildings. If you really want to desegregate an educational system, you look at the children that walk into the doors, you provide the most pivotal force ever: a teacher willing to assess their learning needs,” she said. “It isn’t rocket science.”

Coker and Gloria Grantham, Ph.D., a curriculum and school administration expert, have lobbied Gov. John Carney, Delaware Secretary of Education Susan Bunting, and university leaders to back a learning academy for teachers. Coker is pushing to partner with Delaware State University on a pilot program to prepare teachers to become “educational engineers.”

“They don’t even teach human growth and development as part of an education major anymore. How can you teach a third-grader when you don’t know anything about an 8-year-old’s brain?” she said.

 Coker said that society often spends too much time wringing its hands over the challenges confronting children, especially minorities, rather than highlighting their resiliency.

“They may have seen a shooting right next door to them last night, but they got up this morning, had breakfast and came to school regardless,” she said. “Stop talking about poverty. Talk about their strength.”

Aside from her work on public education, Coker has also been co-teaching a course on legalized racism for Delaware State University and a class on race relations for the YMCA.

Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, Coker saw systemic segregation in place under Jim Crow laws. When she came to Delaware, she found that the northern state also had its troubles, even if its racism wasn’t so overt.

Housing and public accommodations weren’t equal due to regulations on the books, which she helped to overturn. She also fought the building of Interstate 95 through the middle of Wilmington, which divided the city and eased the “white flight” of residents to the suburbs.

In many ways, 2019 doesn’t feel all that different than 1978, Coker said.

“I just don’t believe that the world is the way it’s supposed to be,” she said, noting that the members of her classes talk about how the polarized political climate today have brought forward racism and hate that they had believed had subsided.

 “I always told my children, “˜Your job is to wake up every morning and figure out what you can do to help someone else. What can you do for someone that isn’t about you,'” she said. “”If you see an issue in your community, say something. In Delaware, the one benefit that we have is that you can probably get the governor on the phone or see him in your community at some point this month.”

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