Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

The Challenge to Create a "Community of Believers": Civil Rights Superintendent Alonzo Crim and Atlanta's School Desegregation Compromise

Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

The Challenge to Create a "Community of Believers": Civil Rights Superintendent Alonzo Crim and Atlanta's School Desegregation Compromise

Article excerpt

Dr. Alonzo Crim was the first African American Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools (APS). He served in that role for fifteen years, from 1973 to 1988, during a tumultuous time in U. S. educational history. These were the post-Brown years, when court-ordered desegregation mandates led to widespread busing, the creation of magnet schools, and the implementation of alternative means of promoting racial integration. (1) Nationwide, the court mandates were met with acts of resistance--including in Atlanta, despite its historic role in the U. S. civil rights movement. Ebenezer Baptist Church (where Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. preached) cast a tall shadow over a city where many public school educators and students fled to the suburbs to escape integration. Amid these challenges, the APS school board hired Alonzo Crim as the system's new leader.

Crim came to Atlanta with an impressive resume, despite humble origins. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Roosevelt College in Chicago and began his career as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools. Crim rose through the ranks in that system by becoming an elementary school principal, high school principal, and district superintendent. In 1969, he earned an education doctorate from Harvard University and, shortly thereafter, accepted the superintendency of the Compton School District in California. (2) In 1973, APS leaders decided the city needed a new and dynamic African American leader to stabilize the struggling system. They found one in Crim.

In our research, we sought to identify the challenges and triumphs of Crim's tenure in APS by situating his superintendency within national issues of the 1970s and 1980s. (3) To fully understand his significance as superintendent, we had to examine his failures as well as his successes. We found that, despite the important role he played in Atlanta during the critical post-Brown years, there is very little academic literature on him. There is, however, an abundance of literature in the field of African American studies, and especially on African American education. (4) Consider, for example, detailed studies of emancipation and education during Reconstruction, (5) works on black teachers' efforts in Jim Crow era segregated schools, (6) and other works that have examined civic activism (7) and urban education in the African American community. (8) Yet fewer books exist on African American educational leaders.

Like Crim, early African American educators such as Horace Mann Bond, Deborah P. Wolfe, Ulysses Byas, and Benjamin E. Mays sought to improve education for African American students. (9) In the early 1970s, African American superintendents dramatically increased in number, with evidence of this growth underscored by the establishment of the National Alliance of Black School Educators. (10) Nevertheless, very few works describe the leadership of long-lasting African American superintendents. No book-length biography of Alonzo Crim is extant, nor are there scholarly articles about his career. Yet, he was able to maintain a long, fifteen-year tenure at the helm of APS. Such longevity prompts scholarly interest in his leadership.

As two white scholars who seek to study and analyze an African American subject, several concerns arise. Although historians continually seek objectivity, we engage in this project with a recognition of our own subjectivities that--no matter what precautions we may take--might never be overcome. To provide perspective, we have interviewed Crim's friends and family, not to draw conclusions about his personal life, but to understand the significance of his tenure in APS. (11) We hope our work will inspire future scholars to research the life and work of Alonzo Crim and other African American educational leaders. Such research contributes to an understanding of a poignant and defining moment in southern public school history, and the role that Crim and other educators played in it. …

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