OPINION: Federal court order ending 'all vestiges of state-imposed segregation' in local schools came 50 years ago

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Jul. 31—Fifty years ago last week, an order by U.S. District Court Judge Frank W. Wilson was to end "all vestiges of state-imposed segregation" in the then-Chattanooga city school system.

The order implemented the city school board's recently submitted integration plan for elementary and junior high schools and gave "tentative approval" to the high school portion of the plan. It also started the clock on the busing of students to achieve a racial balance and, in effect, was the impetus for the start and growth of a number of area private schools.

By the end of the 1970s, three of the city's majority white high schools (Brainerd, City High and Kirkman) became majority Black, and Tyner and Hixson high schools had decidedly mixed student bodies.

The county's high schools grew expansively over the same period as white families fled city neighborhoods zoned for the newly integrated schools for subdivisions rapidly being built beyond the city limits.

Between 1966 and 1989, according to newspaper archives, the student body of the Chattanooga school system dropped from 53.5% white and 46.5% Black to 22% white and 78% Black.

Among the private schools that opened within a decade of the decision were Berean Academy, Brainerd Baptist School, Calvary Christian School and Hickory Valley Christian School. Chattanooga Christian, now the county's largest private school, had opened the previous year. Trinity Christian School, now closed, had opened less than two years earlier and attracted a number of the former public school students.

Wilson's 25-page opinion was written to settle the Mapp v. Board of Education lawsuit, which was brought by a Black plaintiff who argued that the decisions in a previous lawsuit he had brought had never been implemented.

The 1971 opinion didn't settle the suit, either. Although it set in motion actions that would change the city's education outlook for good, it did not end until it was dismissed in 1986 on the grounds the school system had remained in compliance with the federal court order since 1974.

On the day of the judge's order, though, local officials pledged they would get to work to put changes in place before schools opened in a little over a month.

Dr. James A. Henry, superintendent of city schools, said he was "relieved" the decision had come and felt "the judge has given us just about everything we asked for in our plan."

One of the first things he expected to do, he said, was to order about 29 more buses which would take some 6,000 to 7,000 children from their neighborhood schools and transport them to other schools.

However, a subsequent lawsuit upheld much of the early busing for another two years.

Chattanooga Mayor Robert Kirk Walker saw both sides of the issue about the desegregation of schools.

"The majority of people favor neighborhood schools and oppose busing," he said. "If local government had a choice, neighborhood schools would have continued, but local government does not have this choice available to it."

However, he said "we have weathered many a storm together" and now "we must experience a rebirth and magnification of such unity and purpose that will serve us well through these days of transition and change."

U.S. Rep. Lamar Baker, the area congressional representative, was not so circumspect.

"Shoving children together by force isn't going to make the learning situation any better," he said. "We must get to the root of the problem" by "creating a desire within the community" to motivate a person to study and learn to be a productive member of society.

Interestingly, Wilson, in a three-page addendum to his order, seemed to appeal for public understanding. He said it wouldn't make sense if the court upheld a statute about robbery but not one saying all citizens should be treated equally before the law, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down supposedly separate but equal school systems for white and Black students.

"This court is not insensitive to the fears and anguish expressed by some within the city in recent days ," he wrote, "but this court would be unworthy of trust in the least of its functions if it were to allow these things to cause it to deviate in the least from its sworn duty."

Looking back with the perspective of 50 years, we believe Wilson simply was attempting to end the foot-dragging of school systems in the South on implementing the 1954 Brown decision.

We feel, without a doubt, that multicultural schools can benefit all students, but we're not convinced busing — as it was carried out — was the correct vehicle.

To us, it might have made more sense at the time to redraw zones so that all-white or all-Black schools, as much as possible, could be integrated, and to create a plan with buses to take minority groups of students who wanted to go to a specific school out of their zone to their favored school.

Whether it would have worked, of course, can't be known. But the vestiges of the school district we have today — though the city and county systems are now merged — were created 50 years ago this week.

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