Equity & Diversity Opinion

School Desegregation and the ‘American Dilemma’

By Robert W. Peebles — March 24, 1999 9 min read

What have we learned over this period? Where do we stand today? Race issues continue to plague this nation, and social class is closely entwined with race as families decide whether to move or remain within public schools, one of the greatest equalizing institutions in our history.

Following the Brown decision, the civil rights movement that grew during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations sparked initiatives that protected rights guaranteed by the constitutional amendments adopted after the Civil War. Indeed, the failure of the Founding Fathers to recognize the basic equality of human beings in the final draft of the U.S. Constitution set the course of future events shown most dramatically by that tragic war. To this day, we remain seriously divided and frustrated by racial issues.

We have learned that some earlier assumptions about race and schools were erroneous. For example, we mistakenly believed that the South would have far more difficulty than the North in desegregating schools. Yet once the initial period of protest passed, highlighted by policies of “massive resistance,” Southern states began to comply with the law more readily than many Northern school districts. Not that it was easy. Only with the power provided by the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in the Charlotte, N.C., busing case (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education) did a broad-based, serious approach to desegregation become policy in Southern school districts. Despite living for generations under Jim Crow laws, thus establishing racially segregated schools de jure, the South acquiesced and proceeded to desegregate its public schools.

By contrast, the Northern states developed their own segregated patterns resulting in de facto segregated schools, particularly in cities and surrounding suburbs. Public schools were left to their own means of complying with the law. They lacked a well-planned, coordinated approach that included housing policies devised by public and private coalitions along with political leadership. Vast numbers of people--adults and children--were emotionally affected by desegregation. It made a profound impression upon individual lives and families, on all of us.

The relative calm and blandness of the 1950s were deceptive. While the Levittowns and other housing for World War II veterans were being built, discrimination was rampant and contributed significantly to the racial separation characterizing the rapidly growing suburbs. A New York Times story in December 1997 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Levittown cited a housing code stipulating that buyers of Levittown houses had to be Caucasian. During the 1960s, lawsuits were being prepared claiming discrimination and denial of opportunity rights. Meanwhile, the United States was digging itself into an ever-deepening, bloody war in Vietnam that divided America in many ways.

We now see disturbing and discouraging trends relating directly to school desegregation. Recent Supreme Court decisions have supported lower-court rulings that weaken or destroy previous gains made in attempts to integrate public schools.

What caused the school desegregation effort to deteriorate? Why did the enthusiasm for it dissipate? Progress was being made for nearly two decades following the Brown decision. A report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published in June 1973 bears this out.

Following a year of investigation, the commission documented several encouraging, even promising findings. For example, evidence showed, it said, that desegregation had improved the quality of education. This positive finding pointed to curricular improvement and specific training of teachers and administrators to heighten awareness of race issues and sensitivities. Innovations led to different approaches to learning, team teaching, and more flexible scheduling of classes. The report provided no information regarding test results, but test scores were not reported by ethnic categories until the 1980s.

In conclusion, the commission wrote: “It is time to emphasize what unites us as Americans, rather than what divides us.” Mind you, this report came nearly 20 years after the Brown decision.

“Separateness is inherently unequal” was the essence of that decision. Recognizing shocking inequities, and driven by ideological zeal, a coalition of individuals and institutions representing racial and ethnic diversity generated a movement that profoundly affected American society. Between 1960 and 1980, a moral fervor paralleling that of causes like abolition, Prohibition, and feminism swept across this land. Many leaders of the school desegregation movement were heroic, some naive.

For a book I am writing, I am interviewing participants in the school desegregation efforts in four cities where I have had firsthand experience. Two are large (Boston and Pittsburgh), and the others smaller (Alexandria, Va., and Louisville, Ky.). These participants have stories to tell. The fact that their memories are still vivid speaks to the emotion they felt then and retain today. I hope to discover why our country moved backward toward resegregation and positions that are similar to the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.

My interviews to date--of school administrators, mayors, community leaders, and members of boards of education--convey a clearer and more accurate understanding of what happened. They reveal perceptions and subtleties of each community’s unique experience. The voices are mixed and far from harmonious. As André Gide said, “There can be no harmony if the whole choir sings in unison.”

As I hear the participants from Boston, for example, flesh out their experiences and review those wrenching times, a quarter of a century disappears quickly. Few know or remember that the chief justice of the United States, Earl Warren, in 1954 cited Boston as a city that had eliminated segregation--in 1855. Digging into what happened in Boston’s history in the 1970s, when U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered the city to desegregate its public schools, I find a shattered mosaic filled with so many pieces that it is difficult to perceive the entire picture. Like a Tolstoy novel, it has numerous characters, each playing a role as the narrative unfolds. And, as with accident eyewitnesses, they often disagree.

Kevin White, Boston’s mayor during the 1970s, had his political career destroyed over the busing issue. “Busing tore up Boston, not really the issue of desegregation,” he says. “It is rare to have an entire city have ... a nervous breakdown.” The former mayor attributes the tumult more to fear than to hatred. But Ruth Batson, a civil rights leader who grew up in a segregated housing project in Boston and now heads her own educational foundation, recalls events differently: “I truly felt we were going to succeed, but I underestimated the hate. How do you get past that? People just don’t know enough of the facts.”

Judge Garrity, who is approaching 80 but remains active as a judge serving the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, disputes the “facts” of the Boston desegregation story as described by the late J. Anthony Lukas in his 1985 book Common Ground. Lukas described the compelling saga of three Boston families involved in the city’s upheaval.

“Don’t get me started on Lukas,” the judge says. “Not that I didn’t like him. He was a talented writer. But he wasn’t accurate, and I believe he had his story already written in his head before he started to write. It’s like a novel with deliberately drawn characters playing roles he designed for them.” Apparently, the judge adds, the journalist and author wanted to paint him “as a ‘lace curtain’ Irishman with Yankee Brahmin pretensions.” Not true, Judge Garrity avers.

In retrospect, recalls Paul Parks, a former Massachusetts secretary of education, Boston’s desegregation plan was doomed from the start. “What they did was to take two very poor white communities, Charlestown and South Boston, and pair them with the very poor, black community of Roxbury, then ask these people to handle one of the most difficult, complex social problems in the country,” he says. “You can’t ask poor people to share. When those buses came into South Boston--Irish Catholic South Boston--it was much more a matter of losing their community than anything else. They had very little to share.”

Says Thomas W. Payzant, Boston’s schools superintendent since 1995: “I don’t think there was any other way to begin desegregation following the Brown decision than to physically move kids by busing. In hindsight, and I want to emphasize hindsight, we should have concentrated much earlier on the educational quality of schools and achievement standards. We missed an opportunity, and this was a mistake. To most parents, the bus ride wasn’t the issue.”

Charles V. Willie, an African-American professor of education at Harvard University who was raised in the South, has been actively involved with Boston’s schools and desegregation plans since 1974. The current trend to return to separateness disturbs him. “I understand it,” he says. “Many blacks have been disillusioned and feel betrayed, especially those who took huge risks. Still, it was important to require white schools to desegregate, even though it meant much greater disruption to black families. We tend to overlook the accomplishments of desegregation.”

What has been accomplished? Actually, a lot. Before the 1960s, we had what amounted to an apartheid system in our country similar to South Africa’s before Nelson Mandela’s amazing revolution. American schools were legally segregated in the South, truly a comprehensive apartheid arrangement. And in the North, particularly in major cities, schools were de facto segregated. These cities are in some cases, such as Washington, Baltimore, Detroit, and several others, beyond any realistic hopes of desegregation. Has the struggle failed? To my mind the answer is no, but the problems of urban public schools remain enormous.

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, Juan Williams’ recent biography of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, reveals interesting insights on this topic. Justice Marshall’s critical role as a lawyer in the 1954 Brown decision is well-known, but the other dimensions of his personality and character will shed more light on the historic story of race segregation in American society. The book establishes convincingly, for example, that Marshall believed in integration. Separatist arguments never persuaded him--indeed, they irritated him. He was steadfast in this opinion, and his influence shines through the years of debate and struggle over school desegregation. Not that numerous racist episodes affecting him were lacking, including the embarrassing 10 months taken in 1961 by the Senate Judiciary Committee, then headed by Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, to confirm his appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

Marshall’s unwavering belief in integration had enormous, albeit more quiet, power as desegregation began to take hold across the country. His concentration on legal strategy as opposed to militancy, and his arguments based on the Constitution, made the difference and accomplished changes once unimaginable.

Now, with the emphasis on quality schools in neighborhoods, the cause of desegregation has moved more to the background. To predict the future of school desegregation is hazardous. But has any other issue commanded more attention, stirred more emotions, and affected more people in our country? What other issue of the 20th century has taken longer to resolve? Is it resolvable?

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A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as School Desegregation and the ‘American Dilemma’


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