History Repeating Itself: Fighting for School Integration in 2017

by September 20, 2017

History was repeating itself for U.W. Clemon.

More than 40 years after winning a school desegregation case in Alabama, he found himself in a courtroom arguing once again for the integration of the very same school district.

“I never envisioned that I would be fighting in 2017 essentially the same battle that I thought I won in 1971,” Clemon told The New York Times Magazine. “But the battle is just not over.”

Since 2013, the mostly-white Birmingham suburb of Gardendale, Alabama, has been trying to break away from the larger Jefferson County public school district, where black students outnumber white ones by several thousand. Gardendale is just one of 71 mostly white communities across the country that have attempted what’s called school secession since 2000, according to a recent study by EdBuild, a nonpartisan group dedicated to improving state funding of education.

Communities that have successfully seceded have produced districts that are so segregated, it’s as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.

Parents in Gardendale – where Rickey Reeves’ granddaughter attends middle school – would create a nearly all-white district if they managed to secede from Jefferson County, where the Reeveses live. Last year, Reeves testified before a federal judge in Birmingham about what Gardendale’s secession would mean for his family. As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes for The New York Times Magazine:

Unlike most of the younger parents lined up on the Gardendale side, the [Reeveses] were old enough to have a long view of the school system and the fight for equality. As Gardendale presented its case, Rickey Reeves’s mind kept flicking back to his own experience with the degradation of segregation. He thought about how his wife had lived two blocks from the nice, white high school, but how, carrying her books, he walked her each day two miles to the broken-down black school. He reflected on how his own school got only hand-me-down textbooks that were no longer good enough for white children. …

He and his wife had to battle against discrimination their entire lives, and they watched as many of the gains they fought for have eroded. They knew that behind Birmingham’s new skyscrapers and fancy restaurants that served polenta instead of grits, the Old South still lurked. Racism had gone underground but not away.

Clemon had no illusions, either. Early in his career, he argued the very school-desegregation case that resulted in the 1971 court order forcing Gardendale to integrate. He went on to become the state’s first black federal judge. By December 2016, however, he was standing in front of a judge, fighting to stop the re-segregation of Gardendale schools.

“It’s something we Americans like to call coming full circle,” writes Hannah-Jones. “But a circle returns to its beginning, and so, as is almost always the case when it comes to race in America, the victories would not be complete, nor would they be permanent.” When Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala issued her opinion in April of this year, the ruling wasn’t as clear cut as either side expected.

“[T]he Court finds that race was a motivating factor in Gardendale’s decision to separate from the Jefferson County public school system,” wrote Haikala, who still allowed the effort to move forward by granting Gardendale ownership of two elementary schools, but not the high school. In an unusual second opinion offering clarification, she worried that ruling against Gardendale would leave the black students who were bused in to satisfy an existing desegregation order vulnerable to marginalization and discrimination.

Haikala wrote that if Gardendale fulfilled a number of requirements, she would reconsider their request for full separation in several years. The odds then are anyone’s guess.

What is likely, however, is that Gardendale’s desire to split off from its larger, majority black public school district will not have abated. As Hannah-Jones writes, “Americans saw schools as the primary drivers of opportunity and success, and white Americans had no desire to share access to the best schools and educational resources for which they’d always held the monopoly.”

The SPLC still sees schools as the primary drivers of opportunity and success. That’s why we are suing Mississippi, which has steadily rolled back the state’s constitutional mandate to operate a “uniform system of free public schools” for all children. Today, Mississippi’s schools are anything but “uniform,” and black students learn in buildings that are both decrepit and receive grades of “D” or “F” by the state.

It’s just another example of how opportunities for students of color are often shortchanged in this country, and why what is unfolding in Gardendale isn’t just an Alabama issue. As Haikala wrote in her ruling:

The Supreme Court’s holding in Brown is simple and unaffected by the passage of time: when black public school students are treated as if they are inferior to white students, and that treatment is institutionalized by state or municipal action, the resulting stigma unconstitutionally assails the integrity of black students. That racial stigma is intolerable under the Fourteenth Amendment. That was true in 1954, and it is true today.

We couldn’t agree more.

As always, thank you for your support,

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

From prison to Ph.D.: The redemption and rejection of Michelle Jones by Eli Hager for The New York Times

Memphis wants to remove a statue honoring first grand wizard of the KKK by Liliana Segura for The Intercept

Was Charlottesville the exception or the rule? by Claudia Rankine for The New York Times

Raising brown boys in post-9/11 America by Sorayya Khan for Longreads

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