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A controversial educator finds familiar ground in a new book on the struggle for racial equity in American schools

Jim Crow's Classroom 

A controversial educator finds familiar ground in a new book on the struggle for racial equity in American schools

Although the boundless oppression placed on blacks for learning to read and write precedes my birth, I remember Jim Crow well. Having to sit toward the rear in public transportation during my childhood in the 1940s reflected the experiences Homer Plessy had 50 years before, when he was arrested in New Orleans for not sitting in an area of a train assigned to his race. In defiance, I walked--to my friend's home, to the Little League ballpark on the other side of town, to the movies, everywhere. Racial progress was measured incrementally: during the latter parts of my childhood, the city of Rocky Mount began hiring African-American bus drivers, but only for routes in African-American neighborhoods. In such cases, the issue of where you could and could not sit never arose.

Our teachers taught us very well. We may never have had the experience of having a black thumb or finger cut off for learning to read, but we learned well from our teachers that some of our ancestors did.

It is a history that may not be brought to the attention of today's youth, even in our supposedly superior classrooms.

In many ways, reading the book Jim Crow's Children, The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision by Peter Irons was like reopening my high school U.S. history book. It had the detailed accounts I once found in my high school texts. The book charts a factual, competent and realistic discussion of education in the United States, before and after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education decision in 1954.

I find it interesting that the federal court circuits went from one judge to three-judge panels while Thurgood Marshall was challenging the "separate but equal" doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson. After initially finding an equitable judge, Marshall suddenly found himself facing a three-judge tribunal not as sympathetic to his cause. Where once a single judge was sufficient to win the case, now a majority of a three-member panel had to agree on its merits. This made a progressive lawyer's work twice as hard as it had been before.

It seemed that the political machines of the time were capable of erecting an inexhaustible number of roadblocks to progress. The situation left people of my generation at times with a feeling of uselessness.

But Irons lets us see how skillful Marshall always was at coming back with strategies to overcome such setbacks.

Irons' discussion of what "separate but equal" did--and does--to the self-image brings back a swell of memories. But Kenneth Clark's 1951 test for children in Clarendon County, S.C., put some things into perspective.

He didn't test 16 African-American boys and girls between the ages of 6 to 9 for their knowledge of mathematics or reading. Instead, he used dolls of different colors to find out what the "separate but equal" doctrine was doing to their self-image.

He gave children all of the dolls. Then he asked them to hand him the "nice doll," the "doll that looks bad," and the doll that was "a nice color."

Even though the children were black, the majority of them still chose the white dolls rather than those that looked like themselves. Eleven said the brown doll looked bad. Nine picked the white doll as the nice one. It was the first proof that segregation was damaging the children, and that it led to self-rejection.

Desegregation came with "all deliberate speed," in the immortal words of the Warren court. But it has not proven to be a cure-all, or a panacea. Nor has it been fully proven to be irreversible.

Certain segregationist tendencies continue to flare up in our culture. The courts shot down school busing in Charlotte, and as a result, they're considering a return to neighborhood schools. More and more municipalities appear to be taking aim at longstanding attempts to bring equity to our educational system.

As we see affirmative action being removed, many leaders appear increasingly resistant to appropriate monies to schools on a most-needed basis. Schools that are predominantly black still do not have the resources to adequately support the needs within them.

The dropout rate of students of color is alarming. In the 1950s the African-American community didn't allow kids so easily to drop out of school. The people in it--including one's peers--had an interest in getting someone leaving back into school. In my neighborhood, people came to see about you if you weren't in school. They encouraged you to return.

Somewhere I heard a leader say that integration was like a fire that was engulfing black society, and that we might need to become firemen if we are to survive.

I agree. But I might mean something different by it than he did.

I still see a lot of fires that need to be put out. Schools are underfunded, dropout rates are unacceptable, and affirmative action is being allowed to slip away. Such programs elevate children's ability to achieve. Clearly, children remain at risk. Educational "firemen," with the proper equipment, training and support, are needed in order to save them.

Irons does an excellent job of saying what was then and what is today. His broad-ranging research includes time spent in Clarendon County, S.C., Prince Edward's County, Va., New Castle County, Del., Washington, D.C., and Topeka, Kan., all historic flashpoints in the struggle for racial equity. The detailed accounts in Jim Crow's Children make it an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn about the civil rights movement in education.

Still, Irons leaves us seeking answers to what we should do for our nation's children. It's a test, and we all are taking it, daily, in a classroom the size of the United States. Up to now, we have only found a partial answer to the question. And the clock is still running. EndBlock

  • A controversial educator finds familiar ground in a new book on the struggle for racial equity in American schools

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