This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.
In the long run, our aim is not a society composed of people who are alike but one which recognizes the individuality of each man and permits him without penalties to express the difference of his personality and his heritage in his own way. Properly speaking, therefore, not integration but equality is our genuine objective.
- Oscar Handlin, Fire Bell in the Night
From my standpoint today, I am convinced that blacks and decent white Southerners are victorious in our 25-year struggle to desegregate public elementary and secondary education. We are the holders of a victory that parallels the Union victory in the Civil War. In fact, the reactions of many present Southerners to losing the war of school desegregation are identical to those of their forefathers upon losing the Civil War.
Central to the South's response has been an attitude once expressed to me by a white Georgia farmer: "We will move as slow as possible," he said, "and as fast as necessary." This attitude in general is deplorable, but when it is held by persons in control of public institutions, it is sure to breed tragic consequences.
The legal offensives carried out thus far by advocates of equality of educational opportunity in elementary and secondary education have been designed to end segregated schools. But to this point, all rulings by the Supreme Court have fallen short because they have been interpreted to deal only with mixing bodies inside classrooms. As a result, the greatest obstacles are now, and for a long time have been, the implementors of desegregation policy who operate outside the classroom. The majority of implementors are still resisting the dictates of the law, genuinely embodying the Georgia farmer's philosophy of moving as fast as necessary and as slow as possible! The victim of these implementors' recalcitrance has been the black educator.
A report published in The Urban Review noted, "School policies relative to desegregation that various Southern school districts have adopted are deliberate in their intent: the annihilation of black educational leadership in those districts .... Between 1954 and 1970, in 17 Southern and border states, the black student population increased from 23 percent of the total to 25 percent; the black teaching force, by contrast, decreased from 21 percent of the total to 19 percent. In 1974, of approximately 17,500 school board members in the 11 Southern states, 325 were black; of the 1,558 school superintendents in these states, 13 were black.
The problem of the displaced black educator has exacted a heavy toll in the ranks of black principals (see charts) who have long been symbols of attainment, authority and respect in Southern black communities. Though these charts are based on statistics from Alabama, th is situation in varying degrees applies South wide.
Black students are also falling victim to the continuing resistance to desegregation. We are witnessing a phenomenon which the Southern Regional Council (SRC) and others have come to call "the student pushout." A student who had been "pushed out" is one who had been expelled or suspended from school under questionable circumstances or who, because of intolerable hostility directed against him or her, finally quits school. Two of the chief methods of displacing students are suspension and expulsion (see accompanying article on push-outs).
A few examples illustrate the continuing harassment of black students. A black student leader attending a desegregated high school in Wilcox County, Alabama, was suspended without a hearing for his participation in a politically active student action group. A black youth was suspended from his Arkansas high school for four months for fighting in school. His white opponent was suspended for seven days.
In a Mississippi school, a black sophomore was expelled because he fled the campus during a series of racial fights. When he attempted to re-enter school that same day to complete an assignment, he was confronted by the principal, who accused him of trespassing. The student was arrested, spent three days in jail and was not allowed to return to school. His trial has been postponed twice.
Another black student, now in college, says that when her high school was desegregated, white school administrators continually harassed black students, placed black leaders on a "black list," and suspended or expelled many blacks for suspected fighting, supposed insubordination, chewing gum and other evidence of "inappropriate behavior."
Based on my observations of how school officials carry out court-ordered desegregation, I am convinced that they have chosen the most disruptive, discouraging and damaging means to incorporate black children and black educators. They have decided to handle desegregation in a way that makes the price black communities must pay so high that black citizens themselves will stop pushing for desegregation and ask: is it worth it? Many black parents are forced to raise this question when they look into the eyes of their children, eyes that once held gaiety, spontaneity and joy and that now show sadness, frustration and anger. Is it worth sending children to encounter teachers who don't respect their personhood? Is it worth having children tested in a way that labels them slow learners or educable mentally retarded or uneducable?
It is true that some black children and some white children are suffering in public schools, but the simple presence of black and white children and educators within the same environment does not cause emotional damage to children or adults. Damage is not caused by desegregation itself, but by the way desegregation is carried out in most school systems. If the implementors perceive black educators and students as intruders, if black teachers, coaches and principals are fired or demoted, if black schools are closed and traditions abolished, if black students are treated with humiliation and hostility - then the potential for black children to be genuine victims of emotional damage is certainly present. And it happens.
I witnessed many of these problems during my five years as director of the Southern Regional Council's School Desegregation Project. I have traveled throughout the South, listen-. ing to students, offering advice and advocating that they be treated with respect; educating school personnel about the student's legitimate grievances (for example, suffering from dual disciplinary standards, being segregated within desegregated schools, not being allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, to observe Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday or wear Afro hair styles); urging school authorities to involve students in meaningful ways with in school decision-making processes; attempting to assist students as they seek to pin-point the sources of their problems; urging them to realize that their problems are not problems of race and are not caused by other students. The problems are in many cases endemic of the system and the schools they attend. But in my travels I have also encountered a set of dynamics further convincing me that desegregation is a victory for decency and that desegregation offers great promise for future generations.
These dynamics are the attitudes and actions of a growing number of students in desegregated schools. Here in their words are a few illustrations of what increasingly represents the majority view of students. From a white junior in South Carolina:
It is obvious that most school administrations do not listen to the students. If school officials would begin to listen they would find much helpful information. The administration would know that a majority of the students (64% black and 54% white) are in favor of integration and want more interracial projects and activities that would produce better relations among the students. From the administration's standpoint this would be extremely rewarding. These projects and activities could foster better communication and relations among students, thus lessening the chances of racial conflict. But unfortunately, most school adminstrations have remained quiet.
A black high school senior in Charlotte, North Carolina:
I believe integration has to work ... if the parents and adults would stay out of it and let the kids work it out. It's the only way to advance. How are we going to change? Through education in the white man's way, the power lies in his hands. We have no power but the few jobs they throw blacks. I want the best and the best is not black schools.
A black student in Greenville, South Carolina:
The older people is the problem. I think if they just let the younger people run schools it would be better. If the young people could run the schools there would be no prejudice and no dropouts. One reason the students are dropping out is because of the establishment, which is square.
A white student in South Carolina:
There's a lot to criticize about integration, but it has a lot of good points. The two races should be living together and finding out a lot about each other. In the school I go to, there are a lot of black officials in school government and they have a lot of white support. Integration can ... work out real good.
I have also observed simultaneously what I describe as a heightened militancy on the part of students. This militancy is shown most clearly by white students in the area of student rights. And on the part of black students, it has been manifested most clearly in a "no nonsense, take no stuff" attitude.
Reflecting on the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s, I have realized that this militancy is not new, but is to a great extent a continuation of the movement in which black students were overwhelmingly the "shock troops" - marching in the streets, sitting in, going to jail, picketing, etc. (I was one of them!)
In desegregating the public schools, an increasing amount of the burden of the struggle for equality in education is shifting into the hands of students. It appears to me that society has asked - has forced - public schools to do what society itself is not yet asked to do: desegregate. Black and decent white Americans (primarily through direct action, the courts and the federal government} have pushed our schools further and more consistently on race issues than any other institution in this country. But now the courts and the government are becoming more of an obstacle than an asset. (In fact, a successful suit, Adams v. Califano, has been filed against HEW requiring the agency to resume its responsibility for securing compliance with the law.} America has conveniently placed responsibility for implementing school desegregation on educators and on students.
Charles E. Silberman states the situation in this way:
What we are discovering, in short, is that the United States - all of it, North as well as South, West as well as East - is a racist society in a sense and to a degree that we have refused so far to admit, much less face .... The tragedy of race relations in the United States is that there is no American dilemma. White Americans are not torn and tortured by the conflict between devotion to the 124 American creed and their actual behavior. They are upset by the current state of race relations, to be sure. But what troubles them is that their peace is being shattered and their business interrupted.
The (false) issue of busing ("It's not the buses ... it's the Niggers"), the misuse of testing, tracking, ability grouping, private segregated academies, etc., all represent forms of the continuing resistance to desegregation. America is persistently unwilling to afford all children an equal education as it persistently fails to provide equal opportunity to all citizens. This poses a real possibility of making hollow our long-fought-for victory of equality in education.
And yet with all the setbacks and despair, we are victorious in that black and white students seem to be hewing out of their interactions an appreciation and respect for each other's worth and dignity and are judging each other not by skin color but by the content of their characters. We are victorious when black students continue to hold a burning fire within their souls and a willingness to struggle for freedom.
We have eliminated most of the legal barriers to still another of our rights and we have but one more major barrier to an equal educational opportunity: changing or removing the recalcitrant administrator /implementor and the absentee decision-makers who have nothing to lose if their "liberal" plans do not result in the desired results.
We have traveled farther on the road to equality and equity in precollege education than perhaps any other area, except perhaps voting rights. But to complete and protect this victory, parents, students, educators and our allies must demand through the courts, the vote and all forms of mass action, including boycotts, a greater degree of accountability from administrators and decisionmakers, and greater representation of minorities in all positions of authority, from teachers to school board members to professional administrators. Every conceivable tactic must be employed, particularly by parents, to change or remove recalcitrant educators and decision-makers who threaten to destroy our children. Some tactics must also be found to recoup the millions of dollars lost to minority communities through minority faculty displacement.
Students must be more diligent in their studies and more assertive in resisting racist and classist mistreatment. And public and private resources must be increased and made more widely available to minorities themselves, in order to support and protect children and educators in these often very hostile and discouraging environments. Desegregation advocates must regroup and work to ensure that we are responding to and assisting victims, not initiating and speaking for them. Once this is done, the tremendous pressure for equality in education that Brown unleashed, now waning, will resurge.
Leon Hall is the former director of the Southern Regional Council's School Desegregation Project. This article is based on a speech delivered at "The Child of the South: School Desegregation and Its Significance," a symposium at the University of Virginia. (1979)