Tracy K’Meyer: The Ongoing Struggle for Civil Rights in Schools

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Tracy K’MeyerkMeyer_from provides today’s guest post. K’Meyer is the author of the recently released 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.

Here, K’Meyer gives us a clear picture of why school segregation still matters.

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The lawsuit was the beginning of a struggle that continues to this day. The struggle has been to try and get for black kids in the public schools an equitable educational opportunity. . . . Even though we desegregated the buildings in 1975, we really did not do anything to dismantle racism. So no, I never thought the civil rights movement was dead.—Suzy Post

In a 2006 oral history interview, Suzy Post, the white plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to county-wide busing for desegregation in the newly merged Louisville and Jefferson County Public Schools, linked that process to the still ongoing fight for civil rights. Scholars have often marginalized the process of school integration from the narrative of the post-World War II civil rights movement. Historians of the movement tell the education story in separate chapters of books and historians of school desegregation refer to the movement as background or context. But people who fought for school integration, defended it when it came under attack, and experienced it first-hand saw education as a fundamental arena in the broader struggle for equality and interracial understanding.

For nearly fifty years, those working for desegregation in Louisville and Jefferson County regarded their actions as part of a broader attack on racism. In the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, both black and white civic leaders pushed for school desegregation as the next logical step in ending Jim Crow in tax-supported facilities. Twenty years later, when a federal court ordered the district to use busing for desegregation and violent opposition broke out, an interracial coalition organized to keep the peace, guarantee the equal treatment of black students, and stand up against the bigotry of the anti-busing forces. In 1984, when the school superintendent tried to revise the busing system in a way that would burden black children and lead to the closing of schools in black neighborhoods, the pro-integration coalition rallied against the changes. Calling one-way busing a racist and immoral reversion to Jim Crow, white and black parents pushed for a more equitable system that would teach their children racial justice.  And, in 1991 when the superintendent proposed ending busing in the elementary schools, integrationists charged that the plan would cause resegregation, with the result, as African American minister Geoffrey Ellis put it, that “resources [in black majority schools] would become scarce again.”  Rallies at African American churches and sit-ins at board of education forums helped produce a compromise that preserved elementary school busing and that leaders of the effort believed prevented the roll-back of civil rights.

Even more telling, in oral history interviews about the history of school desegregation in Louisville and Jefferson County, narrators almost without exception connect these results to the goals of the civil rights movement.  Even those who stress the sometimes negative consequences for black children point to the increased equity in educational opportunity. According to Joe McPherson, the principal of the formerly black high school, “the good part about it was the academic part where you would have an expanded curriculum.”  Black coach Clint Lovely saw “more parental involvement, better treatment for the athletes,” and cheered the raises that inner city teachers received.

In general, teachers remember equalized resources between the formerly white county schools and black inner city institutions. As white PTA volunteer June Key recalled, “The same kind of materials and equipment [were] in the schools no matter where you walked in.”

More important, school desegregation brought black and white children together, helping them to understand each other and laying the groundwork for better human relations. “Attitudes did change” when young people made friends across the racial divide and saw parts of town or confronted ways of life that made them think in new ways. As a result, noted African American teacher Phil Mahin, “White folks who thought of blacks as being inferior or being bogey bears, realized that black kids . . . are human just like they are. The black kids who’ve developed their biases because they lived in isolated communities realized that all white folks aren’t bad.” This “opened up society,” “allowing blacks and whites to accept one another and to integrate.” White teacher and administrator Pat Todd added that this desegregation “created more of a sense of unity and common vision” in the community.

The modern civil rights movement fought for racial equality and to create an interracial “beloved community.” People in the movement did not make a distinction between action in the schools, the voting booth, or the streets toward those goals. Education was another arena for fighting racism and securing equal resources and opportunity. Seeing school desegregation as an integral part of the civil rights movement reminds us that an equal education is a basic human right that has been fought for but not yet achieved, and that overcoming racism in the classroom as in the community remains a moral imperative. For many local people, like Suzy Post, in Louisville and Jefferson County, the civil rights movement continues because the struggle to protect desegregation and through it achieve educational equity and better human understanding has not yet been won.

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Tracy E. K’Meyer is professor of history and co-director of the Oral History Center at the University of Louisville and author of From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation In Louisville, Kentucky, 1954-2007. Read her previous guest post, “Busing and the Desegregation of Louisville Schools.”

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