Twenty-five years ago today James Nabrit, the lawyer for black Washington parents and children fighting segregation in the public schools, was in the Supreme Court looking for a victory. Nabrit, later to become president of Howard University, hoped a court decision outlawing segregation in the public schools would mean that Washington's black children would get the best possible education.
Nabrit was a winner that day. The court ruled in his favor that Division I-white-and Division Ii-"colored"-schools in the District were illegal as part of the momentous Brown decision. But in Nabrit's opinion time has produced an unlikely opponent to thwart his victory for a better education for young black Washingtonians.
That enemy, Nabrit says, is black parents, black children, a mostly black school board and black superintendent now in District schools. They have defeated Nabrit by creating a school systems that despite having all of the city's $44 million for education and no evil white racists to point a finger at, drowns Nabrit's victory in a sea of inefficiency and failure.
Nabrit, who fought against white officials who relegated black youth to second-class schools, now points to black officials who relegate black youth to second -rate schools 25 years later.
Worse for Nabrit, 77, is the death in young blacks of the understanding of the value of an education.
Nabrit believed in the value of an education at a time when a young black had to fight to find a school building or a book from which to get and education . He believed in the value of education when he went to court to fight for black children to attend the best public schools with whites. Then a good education was a high-flying dream for blacks. To many young blacks today, however, that 77-year-old man's dream is garbage.
Many young blacks see "street smarts" and the right connections as the way to make it in the world today. The unending talk from adults about "get a good education" is just so much talk. They believe in natural for people who can't make it any other way.
But black youngsters don't have that idea for no good reason. In the District, where Nabrit fought to get schools opened to blacks, high schools now are generally places where teen-agers get together, plan parties make connections to score a high, and pick up mates. The schools have been left to the poor and underprivileged like some blighted neighborhood. Even middle-class blacks have moved out to the suburbs and mostly white schools or sent their children to parochial or private schools.
Black youngsters left in the D.C. schools can see the neglected schools, the I-don't-care teachers and, if they have half their wits, they can see that going to school is not worth much. Since Nabrit and others won the Brown decision, Nabrit says, black parents and children have rendered that decision fruitless by paying less and less attention to what is really going on in the classroom. School officials, failing to produce good schools, have produced loads of words to say that nothing is wrong with the schools. Now Nabrit says there is a need to stop listening to those officials and for politicians, parents, policemen, everybody, to focus attention on the public schools.
Nabrit does't blame the students-the victims-so much as he blames the adults. Nabrit understnads a 1979 black student who feels that going to a second -rate school is a waste of time. Nabrit quit school when he was in the eighth grade because he didn't want to go to a second-rate school. There was no black high school in his home town of Americus, Ga., or in the nearest big city, Atlanta. The only high school for blacks was a Baptists high school. Nabrit says he knew more than the graduates of that high school when he knew m the eight grade. So he quit school and went to work.
But then Nabrit began to fight for education. He got his father to send him away to the academy at Moore house University. The academy was a high school for blacks attached to the black university because there were few high schools for blacks anywhere in the nation then. Nabrit kept up the fight for an education after graduation from the academy and the university by going north to Chicago for law school at Northwestern. There professtos ignored his question and students would stamp their feet when Nabrit spoke in class to muffle his words. But Nabrit fought for an education and graduated No.1 in his class. But while the law school dean found jobs for other top graduates, he found nothing for his No.1 student who happened to be black. Nabrit got angry but kept up the fight, again, this time using his education to fight segregation.
"I'm not a quitter," said Nabrit. "I knew I'd see those whites in court someday and I knew that I knew the law and I'd teach them something in the courtroom." Nabrit's fight won the best schools that Washington could provide for the city's black youngsters. But now the city's best public schools are nothing worth winning.
Still, Nabrit's life, his determined fight in far harsher times when he could look out of his window and see whites lynch a black man, when a bright young black could graduate from law school to no job offers, should be a heroic vision to young blacks today who again have to fight for an education.
Today Nabrit blames the fall of the schools and his 1954 victory-a fall he sees in his own law classes where graduates of D.C. schools and Howard University cannot read well enough to understand instruction -on teachers who don't care.Those teachers, Nabrit says, promote students rather than take the effort to keep them behind for a year and make sure they have learned. Nabrit blames the fall of the schools on a school system that hires its ill-educated students as teachers for its next generation. He blames William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, for caring more about money and the time that teachers get off work than the city's children. And Nabrit blames parents for not keeping a stern eye on the public schools in the past 25 years.
Nabrit is pointing fingers because through neglect education in the city schools-the schools that Nabrit fought to have opened to blacks-has become a second-rate education that Jim Nabrit would not stand for. He would quit school first. CAPTION: Picture, no caption