Today we welcome a guest post from Tracy E. K’Meyer, author of From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky, 1954-2007. When the Supreme Court overturned Louisville’s local desegregation plan in 2007, the people of Jefferson County, Kentucky, faced the question of whether and how to maintain racial diversity in their schools. This debate came at a time when scholars, pundits, and much of the public had declared school integration a failed experiment rightfully abandoned. Using oral history narratives, newspaper accounts, and other documents, K’Meyer exposes the disappointments of desegregation, draws attention to those who struggled for over five decades to bring about equality and diversity, and highlights the many benefits of school integration.
In the following post, K’Meyer discusses how city-wide busing influenced the initial desegregation of schools in Louisville, and how the city continues to hold firm to its commitment to integrated schools.
When children in metro Louisville, Kentucky, return to school this August, they will be attending one of the most desegregated public school systems in the country and one of the few still taking active measures to ensure it stays that way. Louisville children are still bused—though less than in the recent past—under a new socioeconomic student assignment plan developed in the wake of the 2007 Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Supreme Court decision. That plan has come under repeated legal and political attack, but in spring 2012 the state Supreme Court upheld it and in the school board elections six months later, candidates favoring efforts to achieve diversity in the classroom soundly defeated “neighborhood school” advocates. This outcome appears surprising in an era when it seems “everybody knows” that school desegregation and busing represent failed social experiments. But it reflects a history of support for integration, and considerable community defense of busing as a means to achieve it, largely absent from the public memory of the struggle for racial equality in education.
The history of that struggle was punctuated by three moments of community crisis over school desegregation when interracial coalitions of parents and civil rights organizations worked for a peaceful implementation of busing, protested the unfair burden on black students, and prevented the re-segregation of elementary schools. In 1975, the beginning of cross-district busing for desegregation provoked mass demonstrations, a boycott of schools by white students, and violence against the buses. At the same time, however, black and white parents and civil rights advocates launched a pro-integration and pro-busing campaign. They held rallies to counter the racism of the anti-busing movement, set up a rumor-control hotline to ease parents’ fears, organized volunteers to meet the buses to protect black children, and—even after overt opposition quieted down—continued to monitor the treatment of African American students in the formerly white majority county schools.
In 1983, when the superintendent of schools proposed drastic changes in the desegregation plan that would have shifted the burden of travel almost exclusively onto black students while undermining the quality of schools in their neighborhoods, integration advocates castigated the plan as “one-way busing” and organized boisterous public forums to stop it. African American civil rights activist Mattie Jones described the plan in blunt terms, declaring, “It is Jim Crow, it is segregation, it’s racist, it’s very, very unfair.” A white mother from a middle-class neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city agreed, arguing that “any plan that does not bring kids from the suburbs into the city is morally wrong.” Meanwhile NAACP-led negotiations with the school board produced a compromise that created a magnet program at the historically black Central High, protected schools in African American neighborhoods from closure, mandated racial balance ratios in all schools, and monitored both student assignment and minority employment in the system.
Seven years later pro-integration forces reunited when the school superintendent suggested ending busing at the elementary school level altogether. This time, some African American leaders embraced the proposal, arguing that black schools in black neighborhoods could better serve black children. But opponents charged that neighborhood schools would be re-segregated and unequal. As one white parent worried, the change would produce “a two-tiered system again, of the haves and have-nots.” Jimmy Hill, an African American graduate of the local schools and instructor at the University of Louisville, added, “My heart is sad and filled with pain” at the effort to “reshackle” the community and turn back the clock on civil rights. The superintendent backed down and under a revised plan students could choose from a group of schools, though each one had to maintain an African American population of between 10 and 50 percent.
More recently, the defense of the local school desegregation program has taken place largely in the courtroom. First a group of African American parents sued the district to release Central High from the racial balance ratios and then a white mother sued to end the use of race in student assignment in all local public schools. In both cases, the majority white school board and civil rights organizations worked to preserve integration and busing by insisting it remained necessary to ensure diversity and equity in education. Despite the losses in these cases in federal courts, the creation of the socioeconomic student assignment plan and the repeated election of school board candidates who support diversity in the schools are the legacies of the long commitment to desegregation among activist groups in the community and a testament to the acceptance of the plan by a majority of voters and parents.
For historians of school desegregation, Louisville’s story challenges a narrative that has been dominated by resistance, disillusion, and failure. For citizens, these stories remind us how our predecessors struggled for equality in education and inspire us to keep up a fight that is far from over.
Tracy E. K’Meyer is professor of history and co-director of the Oral History Center at the University of Louisville. Her book From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky, 1954-2007, is now available.