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Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community That Ended the Era of School Desegregationby Sarah Garland
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from the Preface
On June 28, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that offcially ended the era of school desegregation that followed Brown v. Board of Education. Five of the nine justices declared that race alone could nolonger be used to assign students to a school, undermining the biggest civilrights cases of the previous century. Under the new interpretation of the law, school districts that had labored for half a century to integrate underplans once forced on them by the courts were told those plans were now unconstitutional.
Two cases led to the decision, one out of Seattle and another out of Louisville, Kentucky, the most racially integrated school system in America. The Louisville case had a long history. Ten years earlier, parents had gone to court to fght desegregation in order to save one school, Central High. The parents were angry about busing, the main tool used in Louisville’s plan. Their children were being forced into the worst schools in the city while one of the best, located in their neighborhood, was being threatened with closure. They were frustrated that their children’s educational fates were decided based solely on their race, with little attention to what parents and the community wanted for their kids. They believed the school system was violating their constitutional right to equal protection. They didn’t care that their case might jeopardize a central cause of the civil rights movement, school desegregation; a few of the plaintiffs hoped that desegregation would be dismantled because of their efforts. Although they were not the first to bring a federal case challenging desegregation, they were the first African Americans to do so.
To the plaintiffs and their supporters, the triumphant narrative of the civil rights battles that led to the long-awaited desegregation of the nation’s schools ignored some ugly truths. Americans commemorated James Meredith’s fght to attend Old Miss and the integration of the Little Rock schools, but they rarely talked about the mass firings of black teachers and widespread closings of traditionally black schools that followed. School desegregation reinforced assumptions about black inferiority, they argued, and it didn’t succeed in closing the racial achievement gap.
Central High School, located in the inner city amid housing projects and industrial warehouses, was Louisville’s traditionally black school. Under the district’s desegregation plan, every school had to maintain a white majority, and Central couldn’t attract enough white students to stay viable. It seemed the Louisville school district might close it. Represented by anambitious personal injury lawyer, a group of African American plaintiffs, most of them Central alumni, won a district court case to end racial quotas at the school and keep it open. The victory opened the door for other lawsuits against the city’s desegregation plan. Almost immediately, a group of white parents, angry that their children couldn’t attend the schools of their choice, hired the black group’s lawyer and took their cause to the Supreme Court.
The black parents’ lawsuit was largely forgotten, but the white parents’ case gripped the nation. Educators and civil rights activists worried that the justices were prepared to overturn Brown—that they would decide that thirty years of desegregation was enough to compensate formore than three hundred years of slavery and segregation. Others hoped the justices would affirm their belief that racial preferences were self-defeating and that American society had entered a “post-racial” era. Both sides argued that the other was turning back the clock to an era when racial discrimination was the law.
In the Supreme Court case, white parents fought against mostly white school officials, and white lawyers argued in front of a mostly white Su-preme Court. Few people watching the national case unfold knew about the black parents in Louisville who had made it possible. This book tells their story.
Before I delve into the experiences and motivations of others, I should disclose my own reasons for writing about this case. When the Supreme Court case decision was published in 2007, my first reaction was to question why white parents would be selfish enough to tear down something that had changed the lives of millions of children across the country for the better, including mine. The era of desegregation corresponded with the largest leaps in black achievement in the history of American public education. Researchers had documented that desegregation held significant benefits for blacks, and no downsides for whites.
Like many families, white and black, mine had been deeply affected by the desegregation of the nation’s schools. My grandmother volunteered to join the first group of white teachers assigned to the all-black inner-city schools of Oklahoma in the 1960s, where she spent the rest of her twenty-year teaching career. Her daughter, my mother, worked as a social worker at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary, an inner-city school in downtown Louisville, and also in the white, working-class South End, where she witnessed firsthand the upheaval and violence that busing wrought in its early years.
As for myself, I boarded a bus in my middle-class subdivision in Louisville’s suburbs in second grade to attend the same school where my mother had worked a decade earlier, Coleridge-Taylor Elementary. The school was next door to one of the city’s poorest housing projects, across the street from Central High School. Coleridge-Taylor was built like a prison, with narrow slits for windows and a tall fence around it. Fifteen years earlier, before busing, the students assigned there were all black. In the aftermath of busing, the school was transformed. By the 1980s, Coleridge-Taylor had installed an excellent Advance Program, Louisville’s version of a gifted and talented track, with experienced and enthusiastic teachers. But throughout my twelve years in the Louisville public schools, there were never more than two black students in any of my classes, a pattern that was repeated across the city.
After the Supreme Court ruling, I traveled back to my hometown to hear reactions from black and white residents, and to learn about the earlier case that had brought it about. For the most part, it was not that the black activists opposed racial integration. Several saw it as a highly desirable goal. What they opposed was how desegregation had so often worked as a one-way exchange, and the lack of concern about how the loss of their schoolsand their voice might affect their community. They wanted equal outcomes for black children and they also wanted equal power over the schools and over the content and trajectory of their children’s education—something they argued that racial integration in the schools never produced. Desegregation had been framed as a way to make up for what black people lacked. They wanted recognition that the African American community also had something to add to American society, that their culture had strengths, not just weaknesses.
I was struck, as I listened to their criticisms of busing, at how similar their complaints were to the frustrations parents expressed with the current set of education reforms: the charter schools and accountability systemsthat replaced desegregation. As the era of desegregation ended, black communities across the nation were once again facing unilateral school closings and mass firings of black teachers. Many felt disenfranchised, wondering whether reformers cared about their own vision for their children’s education. Some took to the streets in protest. Others filed lawsuits.
In the end, the dissatisfaction with the way desegregation was implemented—among both whites and blacks—toppled it. In the case of black parents, they wanted more from their schools than just test score gains. The story of Central High School in Louisville, and why black community members valued it so much that they helped overturn a half century of school desegregation, is not just a history lesson. It’s also a message to education reformers today.
Examines why school desegregation, despite its success in closing the achievement gap, was never embraced wholeheartedly in the black community as a remedy for racial inequality
In 2007, a court case originally filed in Louisville, Kentucky, was argued before the Supreme Court and officially ended the era of school desegregation— both changing how schools across America handle race and undermining the most important civil rights cases of the last century. Of course, this wasn’t the first federal lawsuit to challenge school desegregation. But it was the first—and only—one brought by African Americans. In Divided We Fail, journalist Sarah Garland deftly and sensitively tells the stories of the families and individuals who fought for and against desegregation. By reframing how we commonly understand race, education, and the history of desegregation, this timely and deeply relevant book will be an important contribution to the continued struggle toward true racial equality.
About the Author
Sarah Garland is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, American Prospect, New York Sun, Newsweek, Washington Monthly, Newsday, New York, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She was a 2009 recipient of the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Garland now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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