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I have tried to think of a single act of charity that equals in social and economic impact the decision by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to give a billion dollars over the next 20 years for college scholarships for minority students.

My imagination soars, and my heart sings, when I realize that this gift will enable at least a thousand -- mostly black, Hispanic and Native American -- youngsters each year for two decades to develop their potentials in science, medicine and technology or to teach other youngsters who need a boost. The only thing comparable that I can think of was the 1913 decision by Julius Rosenwald to set up a fund to provide grants for the construction of schools for Negro children. By 1932, more than 5,000 such schools had been built in 15 states, including little Bernard School in McMinnville, Tenn., which I attended from kindergarten through high school.

Without Rosenwald's brave and generous grants, many thousands of black kids of my time would have had absolutely no school to attend. I now marvel, as I speak across America, to run into distinguished black professionals who got their basic educations in a Rosenwald school.

To understand the bravery and importance of Rosenwald's act, you must understand that well into the 1900s, many states and communities frowned on teaching Negroes to read and write, and some made it a crime to do so. Astigmatic business leaders wanted black children in the cotton and peanut fields, not in classrooms. So politicians in the Jim Crow South funded public schools for whites, but nothing for African-Americans.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Rosenwald changed the future of black America and began the foundation for the civil-rights movement that would come a half-century later.

Bill and Melinda Gates, the world's richest couple with a net worth of at least $90 billion, will influence America's future and the future of race relations profoundly with a gift that will push this society further toward equality of opportunity.

"This country is in an incredible time period," Gates has said. "The advances in technology are really quite breathtaking. Is everybody getting a chance to benefit? The answer is really no."

While his gift will aid directly some 20,000 minority students, the ripples will wash over many thousands more and lure them into training and careers in science and technology. As their potentials are brought to fruition, the entire nation will be the winner.

The Gateses are as brave as Rosenwald was, because they are financing opportunities for minorities at a time when a national anti-affirmative action fever says that it is politically impossible to give anything to minority Americans that is not also given to the white majority. Already, the Gateses are being criticized in some forums for not making these scholarships available to poor whites. It seems not to matter that recipients of Gates' "Millennium scholarships" must be both needy and academically deserving.

Ironically, this grant also has drawn complaints by a few blacks that he owns more of the nation's wealth than all black people put together. My view is that in this social and economic system, Gates is entitled to every nickel he owns, and that he ought to inspire blacks and others to gain the special skills and knowledge and engage in the entrepreneurship, that will increase their wealth.

Whatever the merits of those arguments, it is clear that the Gates family has found one laudable answer to the question, "What does one do with $90 billion?" One does something historic and far-reaching in education on a scale exceeded only by such government programs as the GI Bill of Rights or the federal aid to higher education programs that included the Pell Grants.

Some may think Gates' legacy will lie in computers and incredible software. I say that for another millennium his legacy will be manifest in the thousands of "Millennium scholars" whose lives flowered because of his vision and generosity.

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