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Education

Black Alabama students continue to face disproportionate access to education in state school districts

According to a 2020 study by The Century Foundation, 43 school districts or charter schools in Alabama are among the 772 nationwide subject to some form of legal desegregation order or voluntary agreement. TCF Fellow Michelle Burris, who co-authored the study, said more concerning is that nearly 40% of Black and Latino students still attend “hypersegregated” schools — where more than 90% of students are non-white — and often, there is no system of oversight for federal desegregation cases.

In Anniston, for example, the study found that while “the community overall is roughly split between Black and White residents, its public schools are roughly 90 percent Black.” Anniston has been under a desegregation order dating back to 1963, but “there are no discernible plans for desegregation or integration in the district’s policy manual, and the community’s schools continue to have high levels of segregation.”

Officials in the Anniston indicated they had no desire to seek unitary status under the desegregation order, meaning the case will be free from judicial oversight, but neither the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division nor the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights have required any further action from the district.

“I think we’re still talking about desegregation because we have not eliminated the sources of segregation that were outlined in Brown v. Board in 1954,” Burris said. “The Supreme Court decision said school districts must desegregate and that they must also eliminate the vestiges of segregation. This includes teacher segregation, segregation of students by races, we see the segregation of resources, segregation of curriculum and even in 2022, we are still fighting this battle.”

Burris also pointed to ongoing housing segregation as a particularly significant barrier, adding other attempts at desegregation have actually compounded problems. Particularly, when Black faculty and administrators are fired because Black schools are closed.

“We need to look back at the implementation of Brown v. Board and figure out where did some things go wrong,” Burris suggested. “That’s not the integration the Supreme Court wanted, and certainly not the integration that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted, so we really have to revisit our housing policies and the sources of segregation to thoughtfully eliminate those vestiges.”

The Chambers County case was one of at least five filed on behalf of Anthony T. Lee and other students in Macon County who were refused admission to white schools for as much as seven years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board. The law firm of Tuskegee-based Civil Rights attorney Fred Gray, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden on July 1, has continuously represented the plaintiffs throughout.

Representatives of the firm did not return requests for comment on the Chambers County desegregation plan, but Gray did speak publicly about the lawsuits in 2013, at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the integration of Tuskegee High School.

Gray explained that in 1963, in response to state and local governments dragging their feet or actively preventing desegregation, he filed a flurry of lawsuits targeting local school boards, state agencies and elected officials. In the process, Black students were harassed and intimidated, while white students or parents went so far as to burn down their own schools to prevent integration.

But in the end, Gray secured orders integrating most Alabama public schools that were not already subject to separate court orders, as well as all of the colleges under the State Board of Education. Those included Troy University, the University of West Alabama, the University of North Alabama and Jacksonville State University. Gray’s orders also merged the African American and white athletic associations, desegregated all trade schools and junior colleges, and protected rights for existing teachers.

“[These cases] are still alive and there are still permanent injunctions outstanding against each of these school systems,” Gray said in 2013. “So if I have reason to believe we have serious problems across this state, at least there is a basic document enjoining these school boards to do what they are supposed to do.”

In LaFayette, Smith said he believes the case in Chambers County has persisted for more than half a century largely out of apathy.

“I think people just didn’t want to do it to be completely honest,” he said. “But lately, the biggest thing is that we put the leadership in place and then received the buy-in from the community. I think the current superintendent and the board have made it a priority to settle this particular case.”

In recent meetings and publications, school officials in Chambers County have largely pitched the desegregation plan as an opportunity to modernize facilities and instructional opportunities. Judge Watkins’ order noted conditions at the three closed primary schools were often described as “deplorable.”

Smith said in Chambers County, the results of the agreement will be monitored. He is also introducing efforts to increase minority faculty ratios by focusing recruitment efforts on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“I think this case will finally address some of those problems,” he said. “In a perfect world, you want to keep your historic neighborhood school open, but you also have to be a good steward of financing and making sure all students have access to equal opportunities and resources. So I think this is the best route for us to come into compliance with the federal mandate, while also providing the best opportunities for those students who have been disenfranchised for decades. And I think the magnet program is going to play a major role in a restorative justice approach.”

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