A National Pattern Reflected Desegregation Cases Slowly Coming to End

Article excerpt

The decision by a federal judge to pull the plug on Duval County's longstanding desegregation case yesterday fits a national pattern.

One by one, lawsuits aimed at ensuring that black children sit side-by-side with white children are coming to a close in big-city school districts across the country.

And now that the unrest in those cities, sparked by such measures as involuntary busing, fade into the recesses of newspaper archives, the schools are said to remain as they were: black and white.

Educators and community leaders from some of those cities said in telephone interviews yesterday that the problems of race and educational equality have not faded away.

In Buffalo, N.Y., whose school district was declared unitary by a federal court in 1995, school enrollments largely reflect the demographics of the district's population, said Yvonne Hargrave, associate superintendent.

But those demographics are lopsided. About 75 percent of students are minorities. A quarter of the school population is white.

Many whites and middle-class black families moved to school districts in the suburbs, she said. Before Buffalo's case began, more than half of the district's children were white.

School officials, who created existing districts to meet the aims of integration, are beginning to discuss a redrawing of these boundaries to return to a pattern of community schools, Hargrave said.

But Frank Mesiah, head of the Buffalo branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the federal court's decision to dismiss the case left much undone.

"It was like leaving the evacuation of the wounded to those who shot them down," he said. "Some of the same people who helped create the problem were left to implement the solution."

And racial divisions remain acute on the school board after white members recently tried to oust a black superintendent, he said.

This sense of unfinished business is shared by John Evans, an NAACP leader in DeKalb County, Ga. A federal desegregation case came to an end there in 1992.

After 25 years, "the courts just got fed up with it," he said.

As a result of the court system's exit, black leaders have had to change their strategy, recognizing that white children are not going to come to schools in black neighborhoods, he said.

Black leaders need to focus on making sure that their children's schools are as good as, or superior to, their white counterparts, Evans said.

"Race will always matter, but what we've got to do is empower ourselves," he said. "We've got to make our schools the best in the system."

The end of desegregation cases in the courts does not mean a return to the separate but unequal injustices of the past, said Vern Moore, a deputy superintendent in Oklahoma City's public school system.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended the case against his district in 1991 in a decision that set the stage for other dismissals that have followed elsewhere.

School district rules provide safeguards from racial discrimination, and the attitudes of the officials overseeing the district have changed since the late 1960s, he said.

Oklahoma City has community schools. Many of these remain racially isolated, but as housing segregation has eased slightly, the situation is not as bad as it once was, Moore said.

"We are in a very positive mode at this point," he said.

A LONG HISTORY

The legal struggle over Duval County's desegregation efforts began nearly 40 years ago. Here is a summary of some of the key events in that time:

Dec. 6, 1960: Daly and Sadie Braxton, with the backing of the NAACP, files a lawsuit seeking to end Duval County's segregated school system. Because of changes through the years, the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP is now sole plaintiff. …