One of the most disheartening experiences for those who grew up in the years when Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall were alive is to visit public schools today that bear their names, or names of other honored leaders of the integration struggles that produced the temporary progress that took place in the three decades after Brown [v. Board of Education], and to find how many of these schools are bastions of contemporary segregation. It is even more disheartening when schools like these are not in segregated neighborhoods but in racially mixed areas in which the integration of a public school would seem to be most natural and where, indeed, it takes a conscious effort on the part of parents or of school officials in these districts to the integration option that is often right at their front door.
In a Seattle neighborhood, for instance, where approximately half the families were Caucasian, 95 percent of students at the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School were black, Hispanic, Native American, or of Asian origin. An African-American teacher at the school told me of seeing clusters of white parents and their children on the corner of a street close to the school each morning waiting for a bus that took the children to a school in which she believed that the enrollment was predominantly white. She did not speak of the white families waiting for the bus to take their children to another public school with bitterness, but wistfully.
For more on this topic, also see the recently published Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America by Paul Street (Routledge, www.routledge-ny.com; 232 pp., $18.95 paperback).
“At Thurgood Marshall,” according to a big wall-poster in the lobby of the school, “the dream is alive.” But school assignment practices and federal court decisions that have countermanded long-established policies that previously fostered integration in Seattle’s schools make the realization of the dream identified with Justice Marshall all but unattainable today. ...
In the course of two visits to the school, I had a chance to talk with a number of teachers and to spend time in their classrooms. In one class, a teacher had posted a brief summation of the Brown decision on the wall; but it was in an inconspicuous corner of the room and, with that one exception, I could find no references to Marshall’s struggle against racial segregation in the building.
When I asked a group of 5th grade boys who Thurgood Marshall was and what he did to have deserved to have a school named after him, most of the boys had no idea at all. One said that he used to run “a summer camp.” Another said he was “a manager”—I had no chance to ask him what he meant by this, or how he’d gotten this impression. Of the three who knew that he had been a lawyer, only one, and only after several questions on my part, replied that he had “tried to change what was unfair”—and, after a moment’s hesitation, “wanted to let black kids go to the same schools that white kids did.” He said he was “pretty sure” that this school was not segregated because, in one of the other classrooms on the same floor, there were two white children.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as New in Print: Places Where the Past Is Lost and the Future Unclaimed