Off The Record: School desegregation was good for white kids, too

May 10, 2004|HERB BROCK

Today's school kids take a lot for granted. No, I'm not going to talk about how I walked five miles in the snow to school (it was five minutes and the trek was done in mild climes), or how I was a student so long ago I couldn't even imagine playing computer games when I was supposed to be doing my homework (I was plugged into my transistor radio).

But I'm also not going to talk about the more important modern-day things that students take for granted, like the aforementioned computer and other technology, better educated teachers, better school buildings, more nutritious cafeteria meals (believe it or not) and more programs aimed at ensuring that as many students as possible don't slip through the cracks.

Even more important than the impact of the aforementioned advances has had on public education has been the effect of Brown vs. the Kansas Board of Education. That landmark court case is what spurred the desegregation of the nation's schools, and its 50th anniversary is now being celebrated across the country.


Because of that case, white and black students started going to the same schools. To today's generation of schoolchildren, this old news would produce at most a yawn. It might even cause a contemptuous chuckle at how backward we of older generations must have been. The yawners and chucklers take for granted that people of all races go to the same schools.

But you young folk need to be reminded that there are plenty of people alive today - like your parents and grandparents - who remember what it was like attending separate schools and all the other manifestations of a segregated culture. We of the long-in-the-tooth generations don't have to go back too far in our long memories to recall segregation.

As your own observance of the Brown vs. Board anniversary, you kids might make a point of asking your elders what it was like in a segregated world that probably is hard for you to imagine.

If you are white and have a black friend, ask his or her parents or grandparents what it was like to be forced to attend "colored" schools.

If you are black and have a white friend, ask his or her parents or grandparents what it was like to go to schools where there not only were no black students but little black history, albeit the chapter on slavery and a blurb on George Washington Carver.

You older folks might make a point of telling your kids and their friends of the separate worlds you and those of the other race inhabited.

As a kid of the 1950s and 1960s who grew up in the Deep South and Midwest, my school world was mostly all-white.

I attended elementary schools in the Atlanta area at the time the civil rights movement was getting started. From what I heard from my parents' conversations (they happened to be pretty enlightened) and what was on the nightly news and on the front page of the paper, I vaguely realized what was going on.

But there was hardly a mention of one of the most momentous movements in American history at my school. Hindsight, however, tells me there was a not-too-subtle protest going on. For instance, every day after the pledge of allegiance, my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Coleman, would lead the class in singing "Dixie."

And I recall the school assembly held outdoors one day in 1956 when school officials and town leaders unfurled and hoisted a new version of the Georgia state flag - one with the stars and bars of the Confederacy. As I learned decades later during a protest against the flag by blacks in the Georgia legislature, the banner was designed expressly as a demonstration of support for segregation and to protest the burgeoning civil rights movement.

I also attended schools in the Midwest, which, with one exception, were all white. While there were no state flags with stars and bars on them or singing of "Dixie," these schools were in systems that were just as segregrated. They were in suburbs, many of which were populated by whites fleeing cities with growing black populations.

At one Midwestern school I attended, the color line apparently had been broken by a light-skinned African American boy who had a black father and white mother. His name was Steve but he was called, among other things, "Mullie" - for mulatto. Despite his self-conscious efforts to "pass," Steve might as well have been all black.

In today's schools, at least those in districts where there are African Americans, Steve and full-blooded blacks generally would be taken for granted. For four decades, blacks and whites have been attending the same schools. Something today's kids are used to, but something they need to be reminded of.

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