In 1967, during the heart of the civil rights movement, a young white teacher in the poor, black section of Boston was fired for reading a Langston Hughes poem to his fourth grade students. That individual was Jonathan Kozol.
Death At An Early Age, a description of his first year as a teacher, was published in 1967 and received the 1968 National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion. Now regarded as a classic by educators, it has sold more than 2 million copies in the United States and Europe. After being fired from his first job, Kozol taught for a short stint at a suburban school. The shock of going from one of the country’s poorest public schools to one of its richest never left him.
From the start, Kozol combined teaching with activism. He taught at South Boston High during the city’s desegregation crisis. Working with black and Hispanic parents, he helped set up a storefront learning center that became a model for many others in the U.S. In 1980, the Cleveland Public Library asked him to design a literacy plan for the nation’s large cities. His plan became the model for a major effort sparked by the State Library of California. The book that followed, Illiterate America, was the center of a campaign to spur state, federal and private action on adult literacy.
Days before Christmas 1985, Kozol spent an evening at a homeless shelter in New York. Nightlong conversations with the mothers and children who befriended him led him to remain there for much of the winter. Out of that experience came Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, a narrative portrayal of the day-to-day life struggle of some of the poorest people in America. The book received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for 1989 and The Conscience in Media Award of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Kozol went on to found The Fund for the Homeless, a non-profit organization that provides homeless families with emergency assistance.
Kozol’s other titles include Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools, which received The New England Book Award in nonfiction; and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, a national best seller within three weeks which received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1996.
Published in 2005, Kozol’s latest book, The Shame of a Nation, is a haunting journey through the classrooms in which children of color are contained, concealed and isolated from American society.
A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard and a Rhodes Scholar, today Kozol lives in Massachusetts.