OAKLAND -- Forty-seven years and 15 superintendents ago, a parent named Oscar Wright first stood before the Oakland board of education, demanding an equal education for all of the city's schoolchildren.
Now 88, he moves slowly when he makes his way to the podium. His hands sometimes tremble violently. But Wright's message is unshakable. It's hard to follow Oakland school district politics without knowing who he is -- or what he's about to tell the system about itself.
Meeting after meeting, in his unmistakable Mississippi accent, he chides the board for allowing black and Latino students to be tracked into remedial classes and suspended at disproportionately high rates. Too many kids are dropping out, he says, or attending schools that are not preparing them academically, socially or morally to become good citizens.
"I think he's right on," said Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith, who created an Office for African-American Male Achievement in 2010 to address some of those problems. "He's had a huge influence in terms of what we're trying to achieve."
The all-black agricultural school that Wright attended on a plantation in Coahoma County, Miss., didn't teach algebra or geometry, chemistry or biology. It was the only school in the county for black students. Sometimes, Wright said, he and his classmates would be sent out of their classrooms and into the cotton fields.
Wright graduated at the top of his class and was drafted
That was before he nearly failed his first math course. Although Wright stayed in school and earned a degree, he said, he had to face the fact that he was woefully unprepared -- even for a "B-rated black college."
During a short stint as a high school teacher in Mississippi, he secretly taught his African-American students algebra and geometry, he said. He was fired for insubordination and document falsification, allegations he did not dispute.
"I was teaching the kids what I knew they needed," he said.
What seems to drive Wright is the belief that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the same system that deliberately failed him more than 70 years ago remains in place today.
"It was never intended to let American black people move up from the bottom of the ladder, no matter how often we prove ourselves," he said.
Gary Yee, an Oakland school board member who has served various roles in the district since 1973, disagrees that the inequities in today's school systems are intentional. Serious problems exist, he said, but their solutions are more nuanced than Wright seems to
"I don't necessarily agree with his analysis, but I understand it," Yee said.
Wright's family settled in Oakland in the late 1950s, and he became involved in educational issues as his children went through school. Then a contractor, he became active with the NAACP; ran twice, unsuccessfully, for a seat on the school board; and called for the ouster of at least two superintendents and an elementary school principal.
Wright says he still remembers his son sitting in his room, dejected, after his first day of high school. He had sent him off that morning with a list of college-prep courses to take, he said, but the teenager was instead programmed into a general education track.
"I said, 'How'd it go today? Did you get the right courses?' He started to cry," Wright recalled. "I began to see what happened to me was happening to my kids."
In 2009, the Oakland school board adopted tougher, college-prep graduation requirements for all students. It hired a superintendent who talks about institutional racism and the "opportunity gap" between the city's white and black students.
"One thing I have to say about Tony Smith: He has guts enough to mention the truth. That's dangerous to say around here," Wright said.
Still, Wright says it is doubtful that the changes he's pushing for will happen, regardless of what Smith says or tries to do. He says he has seen too many ambitious plans fall by the wayside. "The same thing, it goes on and on and on," he said.
In the mid-1990s, Wright and other members of the African-American Education Task Force filed a complaint against Oakland Unified with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Years later, the Oakland school board approved a voluntary resolution to address those concerns, but Wright says the agreement wasn't implemented.
The test scores of African-American elementary school students have risen in recent years, but the statistics for older children remain bleak. According to the most recent estimates from the California Department of Education, 36 percent of the city's black students and 40 percent of its Latino students drop out of high school.
In light of that reality, Wright goes out of his way to give the district's highest-achieving black teenagers and their families a dose of encouragement each spring. He co-chairs the annual African-American Honor Roll ceremony, which celebrates more than 1,000 secondary students with good grades.
At a school board meeting last year, Wright mentioned one such high achiever. Then he reported what she told him -- that there was only one other black student in her Advanced Placement class.
"I'm saying again, you know, it's time for us to adhere to which we pledge," Wright said, followed by a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
"It doesn't take the act of Congress to do it," he continued. "We just need to do it. ... It all amounts to this: leveling the playing field, for all of our children."
CLAIM TO FAME: Longtime advocate for equal education in Oakland public schools
QUOTE: "It was never intended to let American black people move up from the bottom of the ladder, no matter how often we prove ourselves."