A look back: Kappan authors on desegregation 

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While Kappan authors have generally supported desegregation, opinions about how to desegregate have varied and evolved over time. 

 

The Kappan archive offers a window into history as it happens, a fact that is especially clear when it comes to the issue of segregation. In our pages, educators and scholars have debated whether schools should desegregate, how desegregation laws should be enforced, and what actions are appropriate in furthering the cause of equality. For example, in the years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Kappan published a number of articles debating whether Black and White students should be integrated or remain in separate schools. Most authors held that the doctrine of separate but equal was clearly a failure, as the NAACP’s Leslie Perry argued in his April 1949 article, “Pattern of discrimination in education,” in which he wrote of Black Americans being beaten for trying to start a school, White retaliation against public officials who supported equal funding for Black schools, and the poor facilities provided for Black children. 

In the September 1949 issue, however, N. Conger (“The South is making progress”) disputed Perry’s account:  

There are few educators in the South who would not agree, in principle, that segregation is wrong, but anyone acquainted with the Deep South knows how impractical it would be to try to put this principle into practice. It might be pointed out that Mr. Perry gives evidence of being more interested in “making a case” than presenting all the facts. (p. 81) 

What were these “facts” that Perry supposedly had left out? Conger cites an unnamed Black dissertation candidate who argued that impoverished White people were being taxed to pay for Black schools and an article from more than 30 years earlier (possibly published in Collier’s) that described racism as a serious issue best left to the South to work out on its own. 

The gist of Conger’s argument — expressing support for desegregation in theory, while asserting that it shouldn’t be imposed on local schools by outsiders — has been repeated many times across the decades, and it will likely be familiar to readers today.  

Responding to Brown 

Immediately after the Brown decision, the conversation shifted from whether to desegregate to the question of how to do so. Notably, in Kappan’s May 1956 special issue on “Problems of school desegregation,” authors considered a number of ways in which it might play out. In “Integration: A human relations problem,” Guy Johnson and Richard Simpson predicted that after an initial period of shock, in which states would seek to enact (likely ill-fated) policies to limit integration, a period of (likely short-lived) violence would ensue. They expected that some measure of school integration would eventually become the norm, but achieving economic equality would likely require an ongoing, though perhaps less contentious, struggle. 

In the same issue, Maxwell Brooks (“The new inequality”) worried that allowing for gradual desegregation might give Southern states time to find ways around the law by, for example, starting publicly subsidized private schools. Indeed, he proved to be prescient, as schools across the South soon began to close rather than desegregate. One of the most notorious examples, Prince Edward County, Va., which closed for five years, was the subject of a May 1964 Kappan article (“A study in infamy: Prince Edward County, Virginia,” by Rupert Picott and Edward Peeples, Jr.).  

The closure of schools prompted Phi Delta Kappa to abandon its previously neutral stance regarding how best to desegregate. Five years earlier, in his opening editorial in Kappan’s January 1959 issue (“Desegregation? Or no public schools”), Stanley Elam had noted that while the morality of desegregation was a “settled” matter, PDK had assumed no responsibility to advocate for specific policies and practices. However, he went on, the threat to free and public education presented by school closures was too great for the organization to remain silent. The editorial urged PDK members to join the Committee for Public Education, an organization committed to keeping public schools open but neutral on the question of integration. Still, Elam closed the 1959 editorial with a comment that seemed to privilege the funding of public schooling over racial justice: “[F]ree public education must not be allowed to fall victim to the upward surge of an under privileged minority” (p. 153). 

However, by May 1964, Elam was urging teachers to take an active stand against racism, not just as individuals but as a profession. In “What have we done lately?” he observed that “as organized groups . . . teachers have probably suffered from over-caution and lack of imagination” (p. 361).  

Assessing progress 

The May 1966 special issue of Kappan considered where efforts to desegregate stood in light of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As predicted by earlier writers, progress was proving to be slow. Herbert Wey (“Desegregation and integration”) described the many obstacles to progress. Among these were that fact that the Black students who benefited most from desegregation tended to be those who were more economically well off, while programs designed to assist needy Black preschoolers were criticized for being segregated. Wey urged schools to reimagine their curricula, avoid grouping students by race and ability, and consider multiple ways to assess student intelligence (all familiar proposals to today’s educators). 

In 1968, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that only 2% of Black children in a 16-county area of rural Alabama were attending previously all-White schools. In his summation of the investigation (“Update: Civil rights, October 1968”), William Taylor observed that:  

If Brown v. Board of Education is not being followed in assigning children to schools, neither is the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson being followed inside the schools. In a school system which itself is poor by standards prevailing elsewhere in the country, the black schools are inferior to the white schools by virtually every yardstick, whether the measure is the value of school buildings or the quality of facilities, courses, or instruction. (p. 81) 

Taylor was skeptical about the potential for progress, given that the state school superintendent, Ernest Stone, appeared to be happy to let local systems make all their own decisions about funding, regardless of consequences. In response to this argument, Taylor wrote: 

The underlying theory of local control of education is that it provides diversity and choice. When it provides neither, when it is only a breeding ground for ignorance, it cannot be rationalized. (p. 82) 

Even as federal support for desegregation appeared to wane, Kappan authors continued to explore the tension between local control and federal law. For example, in June 1970, Ivor Kraft (“The year of the big sellout on integration”) decried the lack of support coming from Washington. Given the nation’s long history of racism, friction was inevitable, Kraft wrote, but that’s no reason to stop working toward integration: 

There is not one shred of evidence to suggest that another 20, or 50, or 100 years in pursuit of the will-o-the-wisp of separate but equal — so that blacks can integrate from a “position of strength” while whites are being “helped to adjust” — will remove the tensions and failures along the path to a just multiracial society. We will overcome these risks only by daring to face them. (p. 525) 

Not all Kappan authors agreed. In that same issue, Alexander Bickel (“Desegregation: Where do we go from here?”) argued that pushing too hard to integrate might cause White parents to flee into all-White neighborhoods or into private schools. And efforts to prevent these movements by, for example, withdrawing financial support from private schools would end up disproportionately affecting poor rural Whites who had fewer resources and housing options than their better-off counterparts in the cities. This inherent unfairness against rural people was likely to backfire, Bickel wrote, “fueling the politics of George Wallace.” Better, he suggested, to work hard to improve Black schools, many of which were beloved by their communities, than to attempt to integrate beyond what a community would tolerate. 

Continually seeking solutions 

Given the slow progress toward integration, it’s no wonder that Black education leaders spoke out strongly against a system that seemed stacked against them. One such activist, Rhody McCoy, shared impassioned words in the April 1968 issue on “Black power”:  

We are determined to demonstrate to the entire sphere of education that as “volunteered slaves,” “volunteered Americans,” “volunteered Negroes,” we shall not be VOLUNTEERED to continue acceptance of educational failure. We had no voice in slavery (no black did); we had no voice in coming to the New World (no black did); we did not name ourselves either Negro or American. By birth we were forced to accept it. Now I am at least able to confront those who wish to volunteer me and my brothers to educational suicide with the fact that they will catch hell before I am volunteered again. Those who try had better wear “asbestos drawers.” I know no reason why I must submit or continue to be a party to the educational deprivation of black children in silence. (“A Black educator assails the ‘White’ system,” p. 448) 

School segregation did not end with the civil rights era, of course, and Kappan authors have continued discussing solutions from the 1970s to the present day. In May 1972, for example, an issue titled “The wayward busing issue” discussed the role of busing in improving the racial diversity of schools, despite lack of diversity in housing. When the issue was published, President Richard Nixon had called for a moratorium on busing, and Florida had voted for a constitutional amendment against busing while, at the same time, voting in support of integration. So, once again, while integration received theoretical support, practical efforts were met with resistance. 

Recognizing the controversy, Ralph Spence noted in his guest editorial that opened the issue that “parental concern over busing is understandable. We would not want parents indifferent about the schooling of their children, but we want them also to remember their responsibility for helping other children achieve this same quality” (p. 573).  

Looking back 

By September 1990, the Brown decision was long past, and the Kappan that month was able to take a long view of progress made. In the issue’s opening article, “Desegregation: Can we get there from here?,” Percy Bates offered a historical overview of desegregation’s mixed success and noted signs of backward movement in the form of resegregation between schools and segregation within schools. For Bates, differing outcomes for Black and Latinx students was a serious concern: 

Those who would evaluate our efforts to achieve desegregation must answer the question, What about academic achievement and performance? If desegregation is not ultimately about improving the achievement and performance of minority students, then what is it about? (p. 12) 

With this in mind, Bates suggested education leaders focus not just on whether students of different races are educated in the same schools but also on ensuring that students in majority Black or Latinx schools are receiving a high-quality education. 

Of course, significant movement toward racial equity will require more than school boundary-line adjustments or improved conditions in schools with large populations of minority students. Progress also requires changes in attitudes. Carl Grant, guest editor of the September 1990 Kappanobserved in his article (“Desegregation, racial attitudes, and intergroup contact: A discussion of change”) that the “color line” problem W.E.B. DuBois identified over a century ago as “the problem of the 20th century” would persist well into the 21st: “Indeed,” he wrote, “I believe that the problem will be exacerbated, because this society is not yet preparing itself to affirm the different groups of color” (p. 28). 

As the articles in this issue (and daily headlines) attest, we as a nation are still grappling with how to live and learn together, how to embrace our differences rather than run from them. Today, the problems of the color line remain. How can we learn from our history and tear down all manifestations of the color line so that all have the opportunity to succeed?  

 

Citation: Preston, T. (2019). A look back: Kappan authors on desegregation. Phi Delta Kappan, 100  (5), 5-7.  

TERESA PRESTON (tpreston@pdkintl.org) is managing editor, content, of Phi Delta Kappan.

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