“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” —George Wallace, after he was sworn in as governor of Alabama in 1963
“Everything is funny as long as it is happening to Somebody Else.” —Will Rogers
Before he became governor of Alabama, and arguably the face of 1960s-era Southern segregation, George Wallace was a moderate on issues of race. But that stance cost the former judge in his first bid for governor in 1958, leading to his infamous vow to never be “outniggered” again. Wallace morphed into a staunch segregationist and won the governorship four years later, proving again how far you can go by appealing to people’s worst instincts.
It was a pivotal period in the history of U.S. race relations, and a time when public education was an increasingly key marker for the overall progress of the Civil Rights Movement. Although the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling came in 1954, by the early 1960s many states had yet to get with the program, which brewed up myriad legal challenges.
In Louisville, recalls longtime activist Suzy Post, school integration was happening on paper but not in reality. There were separate city and county systems, and the city school superintendent, Omer Carmichael, maintained that any student could attend any school — “as long as there’s space.” That caveat, Post said, meant “Louisville’s schools were seriously segregated.”
Post was president of the board of the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union in 1969, and the organization decided it was time to push the issue. In the early 1970s, the KCLU, Louisville Legal Aid Society and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed a federal lawsuit requesting desegregation of the Louisville school system. The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights also filed suit asking that desegregation be achieved through merger of the Louisville, Jefferson County and Anchorage systems.
According to the Encyclopedia of Louisville, U.S. District Judge James Gordon ordered the suits dismissed. His ruling was overturned by an appeals court, after which he held hearings on several possible desegregation plans. In July 1974, he adopted one calling for cross-district busing of students, and declared the Louisville and Jefferson County systems merged. But the U.S. Supreme Court then banned most such busing, leading the district court to reinstate its desegregation order. The Louisville and Jefferson County school districts appealed to the Supreme Court.
In February of 1975, the state Board of Education ordered the two districts merged, and soon thereafter the Supreme Court denied the school districts’ challenge to the appeals court’s desegregation order. In July of that year, the appeals court ordered the newly merged Jefferson County school district to draw up and implement a desegregation plan by the beginning of the 1975-76 school year.
And that’s how we got to where we are today. Sort of.
The initial outcry over busing in Louisville, of course, is now part of local legend. Several protests turned violent, and National Guardsmen rode on school buses to protect students. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs taken by The Courier-Journal staff remain amazing to behold.
Jefferson County Public Schools has adjusted its student assignment plan a number of times since, but was forced to make significant revisions after the Supreme Court ruled, in 2007, that the plan relied too heavily on race.
Keying on diversity provisions the court ruled acceptable, JCPS formed a new “geography-based” plan that divides the community into two areas, taking into account, among other factors, racial composition, average family income and parent education levels.
Under the new JCPS plan, parents are asked to select four schools — two from area A, where income and education levels are below the community average, and two from area B, where those numbers are higher. The plan calls for no less than 15 percent and no more than 50 percent of children from area A in each school.
The current school year, which began last week, is the first under the new plan, and it met controversy shortly before the school year began when attorney Teddy Gordon, who argued the 2007 Supreme Court case, filed a new challenge on behalf of parents with kindergarten students who will be bused this year.
U.S. District Judge John Heyburn, who’s handled the case since a group of Central High School parents challenged the plan more than a decade ago, ruled for JCPS. Further legal challenges would surprise few.
Melissa and Jeff Lowe seem like the sort of parents any public school system would covet. They’re young (34 and 37), well educated professionals who attended public schools (Massachusetts and North Carolina, respectively). They wanted their daughter, 5-year-old Finley, to attend public school with diverse classmates, and they wanted to get involved at her school as well.
Melissa Lowe, director of human resources for Spalding University, told me she and her husband worked hard researching schools. “We visited eight to 10 schools,” she said, “starting two years ago, knowing it would be a long process. Not being from here, we thought it was important to look at everything.
“We moved to the Highlands from Crescent Hill — we were ready for a bigger house — and we looked at places where we liked the neighborhood school. We liked Bloom because it seems to have the things we look for— dedicated teachers, we liked the principal, liked the physical building — it smelled like paste and Crayons. They had an artist-in-residence. The kids were getting art and music instruction. The teachers we met seemed dedicated.”
But when school assignments were mailed out around Derby Day, they learned their assigned school wasn’t one of the four they had marked. It turns out a large number of children in Bloom’s incoming kindergarten class have siblings at the school. Instead, Finley was to attend Shelby Elementary. (Lowe said she was told JCPS has no such sibling policy, but Pat Todd, the school district’s executive director for student assignment, said policy for non-magnet schools is to keep siblings at the same school.)
Gina Gatti, 46, of St. Matthews, has a similar story. Her daughter, 6-year-old Gianna, attended kindergarten three miles away at Dunn Elementary, but after that school was removed from their cluster, she and ex-husband Tim Vice hoped Gianna would get assigned to their “resides” school, St. Matthews Elementary, three blocks away. But Gianna drew Englehard Elementary on South First Street.
Gatti requested a transfer and obligatorily complained to the school board, telling them diversity could be achieved by other means — for example, returning to neighborhood schools and setting up a mentoring program where affluent schools assist less-affluent schools. She visited Engelhard and came away disheartened. “I was told the entire PTA had quit,” she said. “I just felt for those kids — the school felt dead. That’s the impression I got; it’s sad to me. The kids go home to that kind of home environment. School has the opportunity to be different.”
Gianna’s parents decided to send her to Walden School, where Gatti attended. The private K-12 school is expensive — $12,560 per year — but they like the school, which has smaller classes. Gatti said Walden students earned more than $1 million in scholarships last year, which tells her the front end investment can pay off.
Gatti, a former collegiate swimmer at the University of Louisville, spent a couple decades coaching youth and said she loves working with young people. She said she played “surrogate” mom to numerous minority children at Dunn last year, and although she’s frustrated by JCPS’s “inflexibility,” she said she’d consider volunteering at Engelhard as well as at Walden.
“Those kids some need TLC,” she said.
Pat Todd sat in a conference room near her office in the Lam Building, behind the Van Hoose Education Center on Bishop Lane, with paper spread out on a large table. It was just past 8 a.m., two days before the start of the 2009-2010 school year, and Todd had been at it for a while.
Enrollment this year is projected at 101,000, a 30-year high. Todd attributes the growth — now about 80 percent of market share — to “satisfaction with the school district and the quality of educational programs and school choices.” This year, she added, “We factor in the economy — a lot of kids are coming out of private and parochial schools because of the economy.”
Todd said transfer requests have nearly doubled this year — as of last week, 601 had been granted and 694 denied, with more pending.
As the point person for the JCPS student assignment plan, a job she’s held since 1996, Todd is a primary lightning rod for criticism. But she comes off as chipper, pleasant, at ease. (I found myself thinking she may even enjoy wielding the velvet cudgel of a bureaucracy like JCPS, which has nearly 16,000 employees and the second-largest public budget in the state, behind the state itself, although I admit non-verbal communication is ambiguous.)
She acknowledged the new plan may be confusing to parents but predicted it will be as palatable as the one it replaced after parents navigate the learning curve. Based on surveys, she said, parents and students were quite fond of the old plan.
The goal of any student assignment plan, she said, “is a quality education for all kids. Diversity is an important part of that quality education. We know children from Area A who come from high-need areas do better academically when they are in schools with children that are more affluent and whose parents have rigorous and high expectations for them.
“Secondly, we also know that the world these children will live in as adults is far more diverse than their neighborhoods are, and that they will be living and working with individuals of different races, ethnicity and cultures, and it is important to prepare children to live, work and lead in a community that is diverse.”
Todd has heard the complaints about long bus rides across town. “One could’ve argued to (Abraham) Lincoln that it was too much trouble to read by candlelight. It has do with your vision.”
The segregation challenge, dating to the years after Brown, has always centered on housing patterns. In Louisville, there is clear delineation along socioeconomic lines, which nearly parallel racial lines. The city’s housing patterns have remained largely static since Judge Gordon’s ruling in 1975.
Post, the last surviving plaintiff from the initial desegregation lawsuits, is proud of the effort and believes it has paid dividends, though not without costs. But she thinks people can learn to think in new ways, and is adamant that has occurred with more diverse schools. “I think it was a necessary step to break up something so entrenched for generations,” she said. “Sometimes it takes a radical effort to break through these walls. My hope is that through contact, new brain synapses are formed, and people can think about things in a different way than they were programmed to think before. People do grow.”
Ricky L. Jones, a U of L professor of Pan-African studies and LEO columnist, agreed. He said he actually liked the old JCPS plan because it was transparent about its goals. “What the Supreme Court has done is force them to talk about race without talking about it. It’s totally disingenuous,” Jones said.
Returning to segregated schools, an idea that also has proponents within African-American leadership, is a “very dangerous idea,” he said, because “that inequity will become more blatant.”
Tomarra Adams, also a U of L professor of Pan-African studies, noted that a bulk of research shows that desegregated elementary and secondary schools have a narrower achievement gap between white and black students, and that the gap widens again in schools that have re-segregated.
Mattie Jones, who has also been on the front lines of social change in Louisville for many decades (she was around for the initial lawsuits), acknowledged that busing has improved the lot of black students marginally, but not enough. She now favors charter schools, which she said hold more hope for educating black kids across the board.
“I’m terribly disgusted and through with JCPS,” Mattie Jones said. “Compared to how it was years ago, it’s not too different. They’re still tracking students. The new plan is just a way to stereotype and track those who are black, and whites below poverty line.
She thinks more effort could be made to make West End schools appealing.
“We began to tear down schools in the western area, Portland included,” she said. “Why weren’t these schools maintained and made inviting? Look at what they did with Meyzeek (on South Jackson Street).”
Louisville businessman Sam Corbett, a school board member for about a decade during the 1990s and now a member of the JCPS Foundation board of directors, thinks the new plan is ultimately worthwhile.
“I don’t think people in Jefferson County realize what a good system we have, unless they have a frame of reference” to other regional cities such as Nashville, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. “Are all 160 schools great? No, some are better than others. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a zero-defect system with 100 percent satisfaction, because we are talking about individual kids. But overall, I think we do a really good job.”
Corbett recalled taking a trip to Cleveland, sponsored by Greater Louisville Inc, the Metro chamber of commerce. “If you bring a group to Louisville, I guarantee you Jerry Abramson will talk about JCPS,” he said. In Cleveland, “not only did they not talk about it, they hid from it.”
Corbett said he advises parents to learn how to work within the system. “With any big bureaucracy, private or public, you have to learn to make it work to your advantage. With the Internet, there’s a lot of resources for educating yourself. I try to help guide people through the system and help them not break down barriers, but go around them.”
So here we are. Fifty-five years after Brown; 45 years after the Civil Rights Act; and 34 years after Louisville started busing, the issue remains controversial. Consensus seems elusive, and like so many things in contemporary life, one’s views may hinge on whose ox is being gored. Like life itself — health care reform, anyone? — there are winners and losers in nearly every situation, and the circumstances of each can seem awfully subjective.
Maybe that is the ultimate lesson after all. At the least, certainly, it’s a challenge that belongs to the whole community.