The students get up so early that the roosters are not even crowing and the stars look like they could fall on Alabama.
Then at 6:20 a.m., as the winter sun peeks over the cotton fields, the bus-load of teen-agers embarks on a 42-mile journey to school, rolling across the back country where their forebears toiled as slaves.
"I'm used to it," Rubin Bendolph Jr., 17, an honor student at Pine Hill High School, said as he looked out the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] of Alabama with causing "serious and frosty windows of the old school bus, "but I used to be angry in the mornings."
It is a weekday ritual that tiny Gees Bend, which has not been heard of by even some of the southwestern Alabama telephone operators, has endured for four years now, ever since a federal desegregation order went into effect for Wilcox County's schools.
But now the 1 1/2 - hour rides to and from school are the focal point of a $3 billion antibusing lawsuit that charges the federal government and the state [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] irreparable harm" to the pupils and engaging in the "worst form of child abuse."
The suit, filed in mid-November in federal district court in Mobile on behalf of four black women whose children ride the school bus, asks for a permanent injunction against the busing. It contends that the desegregation order is senseless because all 200 white students who once attended Pine Hill High School have been removed and are enrolled in private academies.
Among the defendants in the complaint are Patricia Roberts Harris, secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, Secretary of Education Shirley M. Hufstedler, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Alabama Gov. Forrest H. (Fob) James, who also is president of the state Board of Education.
"It just doesn't make any sense," said Roman Pettway, 57, a farmer and store operator whose grandfather was a slave here. Pettway has led the community's opposition to the busing, which takes so long because Gees Bend reposes in a jagged twist in the Alabama River and there is no nearby bridge. A ferry service that for many years shipped mule-drawn cotton wagons across the river was discontinued because parents feared that it would be dangerous to allow a busload of students aboard a ferry.
"The money that they have spent on gasoline and upkeep of the buses probably could have built us a new high school," Pettway said, referring to a part of the suit that seeks to reopen Boykin High School near here. "Our kids were getting just as good an education here as anywhere in the county or the state when they closed the old school down."
He lit a fire in the pot-bellied stove that sits in the middle of his cramped general store, one of only two commercial establishments shared by Gees Bend and neighboring Boykin.
"Our people are not too worried about integrating as much as they are getting a better education for our children," Pettway said. "We've tried to change things, but we can't seem to get anywhere. Now it's worse. We're afraid that one of those buses is going to wreck and some children will be hurt or killed . . . This isn't integration -- it looks like outegration to me."
Orzell Billingsley Jr., a black Birmingham attorney, filed the suit in an attempt to reopen a similar 1977 complaint against Wilcox County that was overruled by a federal judge. He acknowledges that his efforts are a distant cry from the 1960s, when he represented blacks in civil rights cases.
"If there are no whites, there's nothing to desegregate," Billingsley said, adding that some students must get up at 4 a.m. to ride the bus.
The argument that many schools remainessentially segregated is the thrust of a recent successful attempt to reopen the historic 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court outlawed "separate but equal" facilities for blacks. A federal judge in Topeka, Kan., ruled Nov. 29 in favor of black and community groups that have complained that schools on the city's east side have a minority enrollment of about 70 percent and those on the west side have only about 4 percent minority students.
The judge promised a trial by mid-1980 on charges that Topeka has not enforced the desegregation order of 25 years ago. Among the parents who filed the complaint was Linda Brown Smith, who has two children in school. She was 10 years old when her parents and others filed the original suit in 1951, and the Supreme Court ruling bears her maiden name.
The Alabama case is moving less smoothly. The defendants have not been able to respond to the lawsuit because they have not been formally served with copies of it. Billingsley has been late in supplying copies to the federal court in Mobile. He says that he and the families of Gees Bend and Boykin are financially strapped and are not able to pursue the case as aggressively as they would like.
U.S. District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand of Mobile, who originally ruled that Wilcox County's schools were legally desegregated and that the case is a "closed matter," said he is sympathetic with efforts to revive the case.
"It's an interesting case, and they have an interesting point." Hand said in an interview in Selma, about 50 miles northeast of here. "I don't know the status of the case because I haven't seen the lawsuit," he said. But he added that he now is inclined to give the plaintiffs more time to pursue their challenge of the current busing arrangement.
Curiously, three of the four plaintiffs said that although they support the suit's goal of reopening a school closer to home, they were named as plaintiffs without their consent or knowledge.
"I would love for the school to come back," said Tanzy Mooney, whose daughter, Cathy, 15, attends Pine Hill High School, "but I won't file a suit for it. It's a hardship for me, but she (Cathy) is happy. With my other daughter, Polly (who graduated from high school last May), it was different. She didn't like it."
Billingsley, who successfully lobbied for paved roads and telephone service here and in Boykin several years ago, insists that he informed the women that they would be identified as plaintiffs. "It may be that they're scared," he said, "but this is something that has to be done."
In 1975, the Department of Justice decided that Boykin High School -- which had a small, all-black enrollment and limited facilities -- should be closed and that its students would be bused to Pine Hill as part of the countywide desegregation plan.
But when the white pupils abandoned Pine Hill High School, it meant that the students of Gees Bend were attending an all-black school again -- this time 42 miles away.
In late September of this year, most of Pine Hill High School was destroyed by a fire that still is being investigated. Fire Chief Joe Hicks of Pine Hill said he believes the fire was set. One black faculty member said that the school had become the target of racial taunts -- such as handbills reading "Go Home Niggers" -- before the fire.
Meanwhile, as the old school bus rambled along the country roads, some of the 40 students aboard chatted and laughed. Others just yawned. In the countryside old men huddled beside trash-can fires to keep warm in the unseasonable cold.
When the bus finally arrived, the day seemed half over. Classes were yet to begin but the reporter who got up in the chill darkness to make the ride suddenly was hungry for lunch.