Marcus Foster was an educator who gained national prominence for educational excellence while serving as a principal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and as the first black superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California. Known as a titan in the areas of urban school reform, compensatory education, and community-shared responsibility in education, he is however best remembered by his death, having been ambushed and murdered by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army on November 6, 1973.
Foster was born on March 31, 1923, in Athens, Georgia. He was the youngest child of five born to a struggling single mother, who nonetheless passed on the family’s legacy of African American educational achievement. Simultaneously a scholastic and rebellious young man, Foster developed the ability to reach and connect with students of myriad backgrounds and nurtured his eventual passion for social reform and education while growing up in the Philadelphia public school system. Foster graduated from Cheyney State College in 1947 and soon afterward was hired by the Philadelphia Public School System where, over time, he earned accolades as a dynamic teacher, principal, and administrator in Philadelphia. During his tenure, he took up the challenge of African American academic achievement, attempting to transform three troubled all-black schools that he headed as principal. He led his schools in participating in a Ford Foundation pilot project in compensatory education, which in turn helped shape national education and anti-poverty policies during the 1960s.
Foster and other educators developed pilot projects that began to reverse a legacy of racial discrimination. Drawing on African American traditions of educational activism and achievement as well as the ideal of equal opportunity, Foster’s programs raised academic expectations, motivated students, reached out to parents, and provided much-needed injections of financial and human resources.
After earning his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, Foster moved to Oakland, California, and continued pioneering methods to confront the interwoven problems of racism, poverty, and underachievement that continue to haunt urban schools to this day. As the first African American superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, Foster created a vibrant citizen participation process that resolved the city’s crisis over school governance, calling on taxpayers, politicians, businesspeople, and parents to join educators in taking responsibility for the performance of all students in Oakland.
On the night of November 6, 1973, as Foster left a school board meeting, he was assassinated by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a radical leftist revolutionary group that sought to spark a revolution through the assassination of public figures they perceived as supporting Fascist institutions. The SLA had targeted Foster because they believed that he had supported a measure to institute oppressive security measures at schools, including identification cards and police presence. Ironically, Foster had been actively working against the imposition of these measures. On November 6, SLA members ambushed and shot Foster eight times with hollow-point bullets tipped with cyanide. Fifty-year-old Foster died at the scene while his deputy, Robert Blackburn, survived the attack. SLA members Joseph Remiro and Russ Little were sentenced to life in prison for their role in the attack when they were later arrested, while the SLA leader, Donald DeFreeze, died in a police shootout in 1974.