'Patience and Time': Allies for Change on King Cotton's Land

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Staff Writer William Montague visited rural Alabama recently to examine the effects of the amended federal Voting Rights Act and subsequent litigation on the representation of blacks on school boards in communities throughout the region's "black belt." (Education Week, Dec. 9, 1987.) Following is his report on how those and other forces for change in education today are experienced in one community in the heart of the black belt.

Linden, Ala--On a sunny day in late fall, Marcus Walters stands by a map on the wall of his office, explaining his approach to improving the schools in this rural corner of southwestern Alabama.

"Patience and time," he says, "are our greatest allies."

Mr. Walters, the superintendent of the Marengo County school district, is in the middle of an impromptu geography lesson, seeking to illustrate the invisible boundaries that define his job.

He runs his finger across the map, pointing out his own county and then tracing the outlines of the "black belt"--a broad reach of country that spans the middle of the state on either side of Montgomery, the state capital.

His problems, Mr. Walters explains, are the same ones facing educators throughout that huge area: impoverished students, antiquated facilities, and a white community that has virtually abandoned the public schools.

According to Mr. Walters, time and patience are essential tools for any educator aiming to overcome those obstacles.

"We think we're making progress," he says of his own efforts, "but I am well aware of how far we still have to go."

A Stretch of Soil,A Special History Originally named for its rich, dark soil, the black belt is a rural cross-section of the Deep South running from South Carolina to the Mississippi River. In earlier times, it was the heartland of King Cotton, a land of graceful plantation houses, magnolia trees, and slave cabins.

But in this century, as cotton has given way to pine woods, the area's name has taken on a different meaning, referring not to the earth but to the people who live on it.

Black people, descendants of the slaves who once worked its fields, are a majority, sometimes an overwhelming majority, in counties throughout the area. Jobs are usually scarce. Poverty is widespread.

Although its borders are not set down on any map, the black belt is in many ways a world apart--economically, politically, and educa4tionally--from the prosperous cities and suburbs that have come to represent the "New South."

Academically, the black belt has long been a land of low expectations, educators and political observers say. Graduation and literacy rates, test scores, and other academic indicators have traditionally been among the lowest in the nation.

In the 1960's and '70's, the schools of the black belt were the scenes of bitter conflict, of segregation and desegregation, protest marches, and court orders. That struggle is over now, but the scars still linger.

In more recent years, a powerful education-reform movement has refocused attention on black-belt schools and on the "at risk" students they serve. Funding has increased, but so have demands for academic improvement.

Throughout the black belt, the issues raised by the reform movement have tended to overshadow the older questions of equity and political power raised by desegregation, according to Steve Suitts, director of the Southern Regional Council, an Atlanta-based civil-rights organization.

But the old and the new issues are actually closely intertwined, he adds.

In the South, Mr. Suitts contends, the reform movement has been, at least in part, a reaction to the period of neglect of public education that followed desegregation.

"There is a widespread attitude now that there is a new agenda for Southern education," he said, "but in fact the desegregation process is still not over."

A Community Groping forA New Balance of Power

A visit to Marengo County, a 987-square-mile expanse of forests and rolling pastures set squarely in the heart of the black belt, provides an in-depth look at the sometimes conflicting pressures that are shaping education in the rural South.

After 20 years of desegregation, Marengo County still appears to be groping--somewhat uneasily--toward a new balance of power between the races, interviews with parents, educators, elected officials, and other community leaders suggest.

Although blacks are a majority in Marengo County, years of out-migration have made that majority a very thin one.

Because black residents, on average, are less likely than whites to vote--and because, until two years ago, blacks seeking school-board seats had to campaign countywide in "at large" elections--this narrow balance has allowed the traditional white establishment to retain political control of the county and its schools.

In 1985, however, local black activists achieved a crucial political victory when a federal court overturned the at-large system on the grounds that it violated the Voting Rights Act. The next election produced three new board members, two of them black.

Still, three of the school board's five members are white, as is Mr. Walters.

Black Majority, Poor Majority

The Marengo public schools remain overwhelmingly black--by Mr. Walters' count, nearly 85 percent of the district's 2,216 students.

There are actually three separate school districts within Marengo County. Linden--Marengo's sleepy county seat--has its own municipal system, as does Demopolis, a city of about 10,000 people on the extreme northern end of the county.

The county district has four schools, each serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Three of the schools are virtually all black, as they have been since the days of segregation.

District officials say enrollment at the fourth school, once the county's "white" high school, now is fairly evenly divided between the races, although those statistics are questioned by some.

By black-belt standards, Marengo is unusually well-off, thanks to the paper companies that moved into the county and nearby areas in the 1960's and 1970's.

But little of that affluence has trickled down to the county's black residents. About one out of everyel10lfour Marengo families lives below the poverty line, and the vast majority of those families are black. Virtually all of the district's black students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

"The majority of our kids are eager to learn," says Paul Whitcom, superintendent of the Linden city district. "But the resources at home just aren't there."

Like Mr. Whitcom, officials in the county district say they have worked hard in recent years to improve the quality of education for black students. The attitudes of the segregated past, Mr. Walters says, are fading.

"There was a day when the white community could tell black teachers and students to go off and do what they pleased, as long as they didn't make any noise about it. But that day is long gone."

'Confidence in Us'

Over the past four years, Mr. Walters says, his staff has expanded curricula and added facilities at the county's traditionally black schools, taking advantage of state and local funding increases. Test scores, he adds, are up.

Mr. Walters gives himself and the district's other administrators generally high marks for reaching out to black parents and community groups.

"It may not be excellent, but I think we have a good relationship with the black community," he says. "I think they have confidence in us."

But some local observers--both black and white--argue that progress has been slower than Mr. Walters and other Marengo school officials are willing to admit.

Although many black leaders have praise for Mr. Walters personally, they say the system he heads is still not providing equal educational opportunity for all of its students.

They complain that the school board continues to favor the small number of white students who remain in the public schools.

Recent construction plans, they claim, are perpetuating an inefficient and racially divided system of facilities.

At the same time, the board's new black members are pushing for a bigger say in the way the district's resources are distributed.

"We have a responsibility to see that every student, every person in this county is served fairly by the schools," says Thomas Alexander,4one of the new black board members.

'White Families HereaboutsJust Walked Away'

On the outskirts of Linden, near the highway that runs the length of the county, is a modest, one-story school building. Beside it is a large sheet-metal gymnasium, a fierce bull painted on one side.

The school is Marengo Academy, home of the Longhorns football team, perennial championship contenders in the Alabama Private School Association. The academy was established by a group of local parents in 1969, shortly after the county instituted its first desegregation plan.

Today, it serves about 400 white students--down from a peak of about 750 in the mid-1970's, but still more white children than are enrolled in the county and the Linden school systems combined.

The academy is expensive to attend, Mr. Walters notes, costing the average family about $3,000 yearly in tuition and fees. Pay levels for the school's teachers are considerably lower than in the public system, and the academy lacks many of the facilities and courses added by the county in recent years.

But even after a decade of integration, many white parents remain hostile and pessimistic about the public schools, pessimistic enough to keep their children in the academy despite the financial burden.

When Mr. Walters speaks of time and patience, he is referring primarily to these parents, and to the difficult task of coaxing them back into the public schools.

"A lot of white families hereabouts just walked away from the public schools," Mr. Walters says. "We may never get them all back. But we at least want to get to a point where even those who do not participate still support us."

For the public schools, the absence of such support imposes a high cost--higher in some ways than the reduction in state dollars that a lower enrollment brings.

"When you lose your students, you lose your public support--your band boosters, your library committee, the people that can help you add to your basic program," says Mr. Whitcom of the Linden system, which is 95 percent black.

'Like News From Rhodesia'

This problem is not unusual in the region. A 1980 study by the Southern Regional Council found that in the 12 counties that make up Alabama's black belt, a third of all public schools had no white students at all.

Only one of the 12 black-majority counties in the area had a student population that was less than 70 percent black.

Observers say white flight in the area accelerated throughout the 1970's, as blacks gained political power in those counties and towns where they could muster a voting majority.

"In some areas, the reaction was almost like the news you would read about from Rhodesia," recalls Randall Williams, a Montgomery-based journalist. "White people would talk about selling everything and moving away. There was a tremendous amount of anxiety."

Since those days, Mr. Williams adds, most whites in black-governed counties have learned to live with the new order. "They've seen that the world didn't come crashing down."

Low Education Budgets

But while fears eased over time, white parents and community leaders in many black-majority areas have abandoned all involvement in local political affairs, including the operation of the public schools, Mr. Williams and other observers say.

With white landowners, organized by the powerful Alabama Farm Bureau Association, working to keep property taxes low, education budgets in most black-belt counties in the state remained minimal, even by Southern standards.

The src's 1980 study, "A Decade of Frustrations," found that local support for schools in Alabama's black-majority counties was significantly lower than in a comparison group of predominantly white counties in the state.

According to the study, the black-belt districts, on average, spent nearly $900,000 a year less on their schools than did the white-majority school systems, even though the two groups were roughly comparable in their student enrollments, tax bases, and income levels.

In districts where whites retained political control, officials often declined to seek federal and state funding for special programs to help impoverished black students, the study contended.

These and other disparities led the src to conclude that "equality and improved education is not the goal, much less the achievement of most local school districts in the black belt."

'Obdurately Obstinate':Marengo Resisted Change Even by black-belt standards, desegregation was late in coming to Marengo County. Few school boards in Alabama resisted the efforts of the U.S. Justice Department and the courts so vehemently, political observers say.

Between 1967, when the first statewide desegregation order was issued, and 1981, when the district finally agreed on a compromise settlement, the Marengo County school board operated under six separate court orders and four different desegregation plans.

The county's record of noncompliance at one point led Judge W. Brevard Hand, the federal district judge who heard much of the litigation, to complain that the board had been "obdurately obstinate" in its effort to ward off "effective desegregation policies."

Local observers credit Marengo's long resistance primarily to the bulldog tenacity of Fred Ramsey, the district's superintendent then and a political power in the county for many years.

Mr. Ramsey, a former football coach and amateur boxer, waged a determined battle to evade the com4prehensive desegregation plan developed by the former U.S. Office of Education and imposed by the court in 1973.

"He practically terrorized every attorney the U.S. Justice Department ever sent down here," said Goodlough Sutton, editor of the The Democrat-Reporter, one of county's two weekly newspapers.

In a 1978 ruling, Judge Hand noted that Mr. Ramsey had steadfastly refused either to assign students using the attendance zones created under the plan or to comply with its requirement that the district's historically black and white high schools share certain classes.

Academic Damage

In 1981, shortly after Mr. Ramsey's death, Marengo County officials and the Justice Department finally agreed on a compromise desegregation plan. The plan consolidated several schools, creating the system that the county knows today.

The long battles with the Justice Department, Mr. Walters acknowledges, had monopolized the attention of Mr. Ramsey and the district's tiny central staff, with the result that "academics were pushed pretty far down the line. The schools were basically left to look after themselves."

But he is reluctant to criticize his predecessor. A 40-year-old native of Marengo County, Mr. Walters served under Mr. Ramsey as principal of Sweetwater High--the county's historically white school--and considers the former superintendent his mentor.

Mr. Ramsey, he says quietly, "didn't pay as much attention to the needs of black students as he should have."

"We had to turn a lot of things around," says Dock Harper, principal at Marengo High since 1981. "Discipline was very low, very gross. School pride was not there. In a low county, we were at the bottom."

Working To Remove'All Excuses for Failure' Now, the classrooms of Marengo High are orderly and quiet. New equipment gleams in the school's science lab.

Along the worn but clean hallways, bulletin boards are filled with children's art. "Building life's rainbow begins at school," declares one.

According to Mr. Harper, the academic improvement at his school has been dramatic, especially in the lower grades. Marengo High, he says, was recently commended by the Alabama Education Department for bringing its 1st and 2nd graders into the top ranks on the state's comprehensive achievement test.

Such gains are mirrored in the county as a whole, according to statistics provided by the state education department.

On the Stanford Achievement Test, administered every year to most of the state's elementary and high-school students, Marengo schools now rank well above both state and national averages in grades 1 and 2, and at or near the state average in grades 4 and 5.

Brightening Resources Picture

Marengo County has also moved more aggressively to obtain federal and state funding for special programs. Since 1981, Mr. Walters says, the district has enrolled in the federal school-breakfast program and added an adult-education program.

Remediation efforts have also been stepped up, he says, using increases in the county's Chapter 1 allotment. The district depends on federal funding for nearly 20 percent of its budget.

As in other Alabama districts, salaries have been increased sharply for county teachers, reaching an average of slightly more than $22,000 a year. The county now has a modest career-ladder incentive program as well.

The district is also making an effort to expand its elective offerings, Mr. Walters says. Foreign-language classes are now offered at one school that has not had them for 30 years, and at another that has never had them at all.

"I believe we have taken out all excuses for failure," Mr. Walters says flatly. "I don't think we can blame the teachers or the textbooks or the curricula anymore."

In addition, the Marengo County Board of Supervisors in 1984 approved a one-cent sales tax earmarked for the schools. Most of the money is being used to renovate and expand antiquated facilities.

Mr. Walters says he has also moved to increase the number of black administrators in the district. The central office, all white in 1981, now has six white and two black staff members.

Two of the last three administrators he has hired have been black, Mr. Walters notes.

"And that's as it should be," he says. "We are dealing with a large black community, and I have tried to be sensitive to that."

New Situations,'Old' Attitudes

Although they agree that substantial improvements have been made, some black parents and community leaders complain, however, that "vestiges" of older political arrangements still operate to minimize their influence on district policymaking.

"You still see vestiges of the old slavery mentality, even after 120 years," says one black businessman in the county, who asked not to be identified.

A particular bone of contention is the district's facilities-improvement plan, which calls for spending $14 million in local and state funds over the next 10 years on school-district renovation and construction needs.

When the board's two new black members took office last year, they found that the outgoing board, in one of its last official acts, had already obligated all of the district's capital reserves--essentially locking in their choices as to how to spend the money.

"It really irritated me," says Mr. Alexander, a retired educator who spent most of his career as a teacher and administrator in the county schools. "They not only spent all the money we had, they also made some long-term commitments that I am not happy with."

Thomas Miller, the school-board chairman for much of the past two decades, acknowledges his role in "nailing down" the facilities plan but argues that the move was justified because the funds had been collected during the old board's tenure.

The district has already commit4ted nearly $2 million to the plan's first phase. The money will go to add a new building to the campus of Sweetwater High--the county's historically white school.

When additional funding is available, officials say, another building will also be added at Marengo High.

Some black parents question these priorities, arguing that pressing facilities needs at the county's other two schools--both of them all-black--are being downplayed or ignored completely.

"They're going to put all that money into Sweetwater, and we can't even get a few thousand dollars in improvements up here," complains the father of a student at John Essex High, the county's smallest school.

Mr. Miller counters that the plan reflects the rapid growth in student enrollment at both the Sweetwater and Marengo campuses.

Roots in Desegregation Era

The current conflict is actually the continuation of a desegregation-era battle.

At various times during that long and complicated struggle, federal and state officials suggested that the county replace its existing high-school campuses with one centrally located school that could serve students from all over the county.

Advocates argued that the plan would simplify the integration process and allow the district to offer broader high-school curricula.

The county board, however, contended that it lacked the resources for such a large project. Eventually, the Justice Department dropped the idea.

Now, Mr. Alexander says the board's continued refusal to even consider some form of consolidation "just doesn't seem reasonable." The Sweetwater and Marengo campuses are less than eight miles away from each other, he notes, adding, "I'm still convinced that the $14 million could be invested in a good plant that would serve all the children in that area."

But Mr. Miller dismisses those arguments, saying the board's new members are still too inexperienced to make major decisions about the district's financial plans.

"There's a learning curve involved," he says. "You can't take these people and expect them to be able to manage an $8-million budget overnight."

'A Little Prayer'

Such attitudes, and the responses they evoke, have intensified arguments over the facilities plans and other issues at recent board meetings, according to several local parents.

For the most part, however, black officials and community leaders emphasize that they want to work with, not against, their white counterparts.

Frank Wright, the board's other black member, says his religious convictions lead him to be optimistic about the future.

"We always say a little prayer before each board meeting," he says. "And I believe that if you can pray together, you can work together."

Hard work--and lots of it--will be required to bring true racial integration to the Marengo County schools, black and white observers agree.

Although the district was declared unitary in 1984, Mr. Sutton, the local newpaper editor, argues that the finding was little more than a legal fiction accepted by federal officials eager to escape from a seemingly endless struggle.

"The truth of it is that the Justice Department won all the battles and lost the war," he says. "They finally just cut and ran."

Evading Attendance Zones

Even now, he claims, many white students continue to evade the county's attendance zones in order to attend Sweetwater High.

Mr. Sutton says he is skeptical of the district's official racial-balance figures for the school. In reality, Sweetwater High may be closer to 70 percent white, perhaps even higher, he says.

Other white parents reportedly take advantage of a loophole in the attendance law that allows them to send their children to any of the three public-school districts in the county.

A number of students have opted to attend school in the Demopolis municipal district, where the racial balance among students is nearly even.

Because state-aid dollars follow those students, black officials say, the trend has cost the county schools dearly, especially at John Essex High, the all-black school that is closest to the Demopolis district.

"You can look at the attendance law and say it's discriminatory, and in my mind it is," says Freddie Armstrong, a black member of the county commission. "But some black parents do it, too, so it would be hard to go to court and prove that it's discriminatory."

Breaking Through 'Barriers':A Racial Catch-22

When it comes to attracting white students back to the public schools, Marengo County officials appear to be caught in a racial Catch-22.

As long as the balance between black and white remains so hopelessly lopsided, Mr. Miller says, few white parents are likely to send their children back to the public schools.

But as long as Marengo County's white parents refuse to send their children to the public schools, the racial imbalance is likely to remain.

This dilemma, contends Mr. Sutton, creates a powerful argument for preserving Sweetwater High's unique status as the district's most integrated school, even if that means ignoring the fact that the rest of the county's students--public and private--are as segregated today as they were 30 years ago.

Any attempt to merge the county's four campuses, he argues, would simply drive out most of the whites who remain in the public system.

Black educators and officials, however, take a considerably less favorable view of the existing order. Dock Harper, the principal at all-black Marengo High, shakes his head ruefully when asked about the neighboring school.

"I wish we could break through some of the barriers," he says.

Others are more direct. "Can we be so selfish that we are not concerned about the other children in this county?" Mr. Alexander asks.

Ultimately, the only way out of the circular trap--according to virtually every person, black or white, interviewed in Marengo County--is to improve the county schools to the point where white parents are willing to ignore the existing racial imbalance.

Tough Row To Hoe

Mr. Sutton, whose own children attend the private Marengo Academy, says the quality of education in county schools will have to rise considerably before most white parents will reach that point.

"You can't expect a loving parent to sacrifice their child's education for the sake of a law made in Washington," he says.

There is little question that for Marengo County, and most other black-belt districts as well, education reform is not only a tough row to hoe but a long one.

Test scores in the county's high-school grades are still far below the state average.

And traditional attitudes persist. Mr. Miller, the board chairman, says he is greatly pleased with the district's current test scores, "considering the iq and the potential of these children."

"You just can't carry children very far beyond their natural abilities," he adds.

Still, times are changing in the county. Mr. Miller speaks of retiring soon, to devote more time to farming.

It is rumored that Demopolis Academy--the county's other private school--will soon close its doors, having lost most of its students back to the city's public schools.

In the black community, some activists speak of unmet demands, of angry letters, and possible protests, but most parents seem more patient. Black elected officials express a reluctance to push too hard, saying they believe they can cooperate with the younger generation of white officials now coming to power.

"I've been around long enough to know that things don't happen overnight," says Mr. Alexander. "We are dealing with a school system that has been in decline for nearly two generations."

To move farther faster, Marengo and other black-belt counties will need the broader community support they now lack, suggests Mr. Suitts of the Southern Regional Council.

"Black folks have already taken their share of the risks to desegregate the public schools," he says. "Now it's time for white folks to take some. But I can't say I have a lot of optimism that they are ready to do that."

Vol. 07, Issue 21

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