Two cases led to the decision, one out of Seattle and another out of Louisville, Ky. The Louisville case had a long history. Ten years earlier, parents had gone to court to fight desegregation in order to save one school, Central High.
The parents were angry about busing, the main tool used in Louisville’s plan. Their children were being forced into the worst schools in the city when one of the best, located in their neighborhood, was being threatened with closure. They were frustrated that their children’s educational fates were decided solely on their race, with little attention to what parents and the community wanted for their kids. They believed the school system was violating their constitutional right to equal protection. They didn’t care that their case might jeopardize a central cause of the civil rights movement, school desegregation; a few of the plaintiffs hoped that desegregation would be dismantled because of their efforts. Although they were not the first to bring a federal case challenging desegregation, they were the first African Americans to do so.
To the plaintiffs and their supporters, the triumphant narrative of the civil rights battles that led to the long-awaited desegregation of the nation’s schools ignored some ugly truths. Americans commemorated James Meredith’s fight to attend Old Miss and the integration of the Little Rock schools, but they rarely talked about the mass firings of black teachers and widespread closings of traditionally black schools that followed. School desegregation reinforced assumptions about black inferiority, they argued, and it didn’t succeed in closing the racial achievement gap.
Central High School, located in the inner city amid housing projects and industrial warehouses, was Louisville’s traditionally black school. Under the district’s desegregation plan, every school had to maintain a white majority, and Central couldn’t attract enough white students to stay viable. The school could hold 1,400 students, but the enrollment in 1994 was only 1,100. It seemed the Louisville school district might close it.
The school’s history was marked by the injustices of Jim Crow. Louisville’s Central Colored High School, as it was called at first, originally opened in 1882 in a three-story brick building south of downtown. It quickly outgrew its facilities. The original 27 students ballooned to 185, and kept expanding.
Like its books and desks and chalkboards, Central’s second building, an edifice of heavy stone and Greek revival columns, was a hand-me-down. The building had originally been built for Male High School, Louisville’s pride and joy, the first public high school west of the Allegheny. Male, for white boys only, had moved on when the city built it an expansive new facility farther away from the encroaching black neighborhoods downtown. After a half-century of use, the building was decrepit. The hallways were so dark students bumped into each other while changing classes. In an annex built to hold the overflow of students, the gas heaters spewed more fumes than warmth. Rats infested the basement and the maid doubled as a school nurse. On one occasion, a student who began hemorrhaging blood during class died as the cleaning woman helplessly held him in her arms in the school bathroom. The death didn’t prompt the city to assign a trained nurse to Central.
Yet students and teachers cherished the school. In the old days, Maude Brown Porter, the assistant principal, stalked the hallways in cat-eye glasses and ugly black shoes, and sent students skittering into class at the sound of her low, but powerful voice. She was tiny, but it was rumored she had the strength to lift up a basketball player twice her size. The students loved and feared her. They felt the same about their teachers, who spent their Saturdays and Sundays visiting the homes of students that were absent during the week or doing poorly in class. The classes ranged from Latin to physics to typing and woodshop. Many of the teachers held multiple master’s degrees. A few had doctorates. The goal at Central was to bolster Louisville’s growing black middle class – with or without the help of whites. Despite the many deprivations, the school often succeeded in reaching its goal. Central became part of the community’s identity, and also a point of pride.
In many ways, however, the threat to Central was just a last straw. After desegregation, black students were still relegated to the worst schools; the group of black activists had seen the numbers to prove that low-performing schools enrolled many more blacks than the city’s top-tier magnet schools. The numbers told them that “choice”, the new education reform buzzword, really just meant choice for white students. Too few blacks could be found in accelerated tracks such as the Advance Program, and their test scores still lagged far behind whites. They were not against integration, but it always seemed to entail compromises that hurt black interests. It no longer seemed worth it to them.
Represented by an ambitious personal injury lawyer, the group of African-American plaintiffs, most of them Central alumni, won a district court case to end racial quotas at the school and keep it open. The victory opened the door for other lawsuits against the city’s desegregation plan. Almost immediately, a group of white parents angry that their children couldn’t attend the schools of their choice hired the black group’s lawyer and took their cause to the Supreme Court.
The black parents’ lawsuit was largely forgotten, but the white parents’ case gripped the nation. Educators and civil rights activists worried that the justices were prepared to overturn Brown – that they would decide that 30 years of desegregation was enough to compensate for more than 300 years of slavery and segregation. Others hoped the justices would affirm their belief that racial preferences were self-defeating and that American society had entered a “post-racial” era. Both sides argued that the other was turning back the clock to an era when racial discrimination was the law.
In the Supreme Court case, white parents fought against mostly white school officials, and white lawyers argued in front of a mostly white Supreme Court. Few people watching the national case unfold knew about the black parents in Louisville who made it possible.
For the most part, it was not that the black activists opposed racial integration. Several saw it as a highly desirable goal. What they opposed was how desegregation had so often worked as a one-way exchange, and the lack of concern about how the loss of their schools and their voice might affect their community. They wanted equal outcomes for black children and they also wanted equal power, over the schools and over the content and trajectory of their children’s education—something they argued that racial integration in the schools never produced. Desegregation had been framed as a way to make up for what black people lacked. They wanted recognition that the African-American community also had something to add to American society, that their culture had strengths, not just weaknesses.
I was struck, as I listened to their criticisms of busing, at how similar their complaints were to the frustrations with the current set of education reforms: the charter schools and accountability systems that replaced desegregation. As the era of desegregation ended, black communities across the nation were once again facing unilateral school closings and mass firings of black teachers. Many felt disenfranchised, and wondered whether reformers cared about their own vision for their children’s education. Some took to the streets in protest. Others filed lawsuits.
In the end, the dissatisfaction with the way desegregation was implemented—among both whites and blacks—toppled it. In the case of black parents, they wanted more from their schools than just test score gains. The story of Central High School in Louisville, and why black community members valued it so much that they helped overturn a half-century of school desegregation, is not just a history lesson. It’s also a message to education reformers today.