Author Joe Bagley speaks on desegregation of Alabama schools

Photo courtesy of Jean Johnson
FullSizeRenderFROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Joe Bagley, author; Whit Colvin, attorney; Orletta Rush; Trisha Crain, reporter and Leonette Slay.

Allison Brown
CityLifestyle Reporter

Alabama’s resistance to desegregation of schools in the 1960s has led to one-third of Jefferson County schools being under federal court orders that monitor today’s school integration.

“Mass resistance didn’t die, it just adapted in a lot of important ways that, unfortunately, made it more effective in the long term,” said Joe Bagley, author of “The Politics of White Rights: Race, Justice, and Integrating Alabama’s Schools” and Ph.D in history.

During a panel held on February 14, Bagley spoke about the history of school desegregation. According to Bagley, even after Brown v. Board of Education, it still took several years for changes to be made. Specifically in Alabama, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was banished at one point, after trying to spark change.

“Governor Wallace used state troopers as his own sort of troops and he sent them to block every school that was scheduled to be desegregated,” Bagleysaid.

When the federal court finally forced the schools to integrate, Bagley said that many white people refused, and created “Segregation Academies,” a new school that wouldn’t be integrated. 

Due to this mass resistance in the 1960s, many schools in Alabama are still monitored by the federal court because they have yet to meet the standard set forth in Brown v Board of Education.
“A third of [Jefferson County] schools are still under desegregation orders,” said Trisha Crain, reporter for and organizer of the panel. “Some of them have just chosen not to pursue unitary statusbecause it’s expensive and you have to hire lawyers, but others, I don’t know what their motives are.” 

Unitary status iswhen the court rules that school that is being monitored has done everything in its power to integrate and thus will no longer be under the federal desegregation order.

Whit Colvin, an attorney at Bishop Colvin, a firm that represents several school boards, said that some of these cases have been sitting on the shelf since the 1970s, when the court at the time said the school seemed unitary and dismissed them without an official unitary status.

Colvin said that there is still a lot of work to be done for today’s schools. He said they try to look at the quality of education for African American students.

“Do we have as many African American kids in AP classes as Caucasian kids?,” Colvinsaid. Take a guess. The answer is no. What about discipline? Who do you think gets disciplined more than anyone else in school? African American males.” 

According to Colvin, the focus on integration isn’t just out of obligation, it’s for the opportunities. Colvin said that when school boards consider how to better integrate their schools, it makes them think about things in a different way.

“It’s a sign of disrespect for a Latino student to look someone in the eye when they’re being disciplined,” Colvinsaid. “Well, at least when I grew up, it was a sign of disrespect to not look someone in the eye. But we don’t know that unless we talk to one another,” 

According to Orletta Rush, Executive Director of Special Initiatives with the Jefferson County Board of Education and Ed.DJefferson County has made progress. In all Jefferson County schools, 52.7 percent of students are African American and about 40 percent are Caucasian, she said.

“We’re looking at showing the federal government that there is no reason that we need to be under this desegregation order anymore,” Rush saidWe’re doing what’s right for children, making sure that all opportunities are equal for all kids within our school district. It is a ton of work, but it is the most rewarding work there is.” 

These desegregation orders help keep schools accountable, according to Rush, who said that sometimes we have biases that we are unaware of and having to meet certain standards helps keep them accountable.

However, regardless of if having the federally mandated desegregation order is helpful, Colvin said that it is the school’s duty to try to achieve unitary status.

“We have the court order from 70 years ago that said we need to do this with all deliberate speed,” Colvin saidSo, do it. It’s your obligation to become unitary, whether it’s useful in another context or not.” 

Bagley said that schools should continue to learn from the past and if they successfully integrate students, then maybe the students will learn to be better than their ancestors.

“Hopefully these kids can learn about each other and from each other, and the leaders of the school systems and state governments a generation from now will be more responsible,” Bagley saidThen you’ll have a better chance down the road, and we won’t be sitting here asking ourselves these questions.” 

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