In a key event of the American Civil Rights Movement, nine black students enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, testing a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The court had mandated that all public schools in the country be integrated “with all deliberate speed” in its decision related to the groundbreaking case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas called in the state National Guard to bar the black students’ entry into the school. Later in the month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into the school, and they started their first full day of classes on September 25.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. attended graduation ceremonies at Central High School in May 1958 to see Ernest Green, the only senior among the Little Rock Nine, receive his diploma.
In September 1958, one year after Central High was integrated, Governor Faubus closed Little Rock’s high schools for the entire year, pending a public vote, to prevent African-American attendance. Little Rock citizens voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and the schools remained closed. Other than Green, the rest of the Little Rock Nine completed their high school careers via correspondence or at other high schools across the country. – History.com
Sixty-three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, that separate schools are “inherently unequal.” Sixty years ago this year, the Little Rock Nine, heavily guarded by federal troops, entered Central High School. Today, much of that progress toward equality in education is unraveling, as a new wave of white supremacy rears its ugly head and mostly-white communities are deciding to re-segregate schools through attrition.
Currently, 30 states have laws that allow geographic communities to secede from large public school districts and form their own. As a result, a growing number of predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods are doing just that and taking their local property taxes with them. That makes racial and economic disparities in adjacent school districts even worse. Almost 50 communities have seceded since the year 2000, according to the nonprofit EdBuild, and a story this week in U.S. News and World Report.
In 1952, the illiteracy rate for blacks 14 years of age or older (10.2 percent) was more than five times that of whites (1.8 percent). More than a quarter of black males (28 percent) completed no more than four years of schooling, compared with less than 9 percent of white males.
The general philosophy, especially in the southern states in the 1950s and prior, was that if African-Americans were kept ill-educated they would remain ‘in their place’ in society. There was also a belief in some areas that African Americans were not intelligent enough to deserve an education. I thought we had risen above such nonsense, but have we? If wealthier white communities pull out of their school districts, taking their property tax dollars with them, that leaves the school district without sufficient funding to provide such things as transportation, textbooks, equipment, building maintenance, supplies and teachers. Let us think for a moment about the state of black schools in the 1950s …
Students often had to walk to school, as no transportation was provided. The school year for African Americans was shorter; teacher’s pay was less and the books they used were those no longer needed by white schools, therefore often outdated and in poor condition.
It would be impossible for me to cover all the instances of school districts where communities have seceded, but let us take a brief look at Tennessee, specifically Shelby Country, which includes the city of Memphis. Since the Republican-run state legislature voted to enact the law in 2010, six communities have left the school district.
The impact just one year after the six communities seceded from Shelby County was stark: Its budget was slashed by 20 percent, and declining enrollment has since forced seven Memphis-area schools to close and the district to lay off about 500 teachers in both 2015 and 2016. Tennessee has one of the laxest secession policies in the entire country: In order to create a new city school district, the only requirements are that a municipality has a student population of 1,500 and the support of a majority of municipal voters. Tennessee is one of three states – the other two being Alabama and Mississippi – that does not require approval from any county or state authority.
And while this movement has been going on for many years, it is gaining momentum now, in light of an administration that supports de-regulation of all sorts, including an attorney general who is on record as being a racist, and a secretary of education who is against funding for public schools. Just last month in Alabama, a judge ruled that Gardendale, a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood outside Birmingham, would be permitted to secede from majority non-white Jefferson County School District. This, even though the judge acknowledged that the secession was based on racial motives!
“Across the country, wealthy communities are drawing their own school district boundaries, often creating bastions of wealth next door to high-poverty, poorly funded districts,” according to Rebecca Sibilia, founder of EdBuild, a nonprofit that focuses on education funding and inequality. Last week, EdBuild put out a report that is well worth a look.
Where does this leave us? It has the potential to return the state of education in the U.S. to the way it was 60 years ago. Given that there is a direct link between a lack of education and poverty, it seems inevitable that if this becomes a trend throughout the U.S., we will once again become a highly divided society with race being the dividing line. With a different Congress, under different administration, there might be reason to hope that the federal government would step in, but in the current circumstances that seems highly unlikely. Ultimately, I think it likely that there will be lawsuits filed that may ultimately reach the Supreme Court, but that is years into the future. Meanwhile … the middle-to-upper income children get an education, the poor and non-white children get the scraps that are left over. I can see a situation where ultimately we have to have a do-over of the civil rights era, only this time we have no Martin Luther King, no Lyndon B. Johnson, and no Thurgood Marshall to carry the torch.
This story made me sick to write, but I am fairly certain I will be back with a follow-up or two, as this appears to be a growing trend. My thanks to Keith Wilson for pointing me to this story.
Images from the past … is this really where we want to go again???