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The failed legacy of Boston school desegregation

Page 2 of 2 -- Paradoxically, five years later, the pulls of politics proved for a short time stronger than the court's ruling. The Massachusetts Legislature, for political reasons having little to do with the black parents' legal arguments, enacted a law barring the exclusion of any child from the public schools on account of race. As Smith had predicted, victory was short-lived. School officials feared that white parents would not send their children to black schools or allow them to be instructed by black teachers. Within a short time, black schools were closed and black teachers dismissed.

Textbook aid provided to black children under segregation also ended, and after a decade or so, state officials conceded that Boston's public schools had again become identifiable by race.

In the mid-1930s, the NAACP decided to launch an all-out legal campaign challenging segregation with the public schools as a central target. They rejected W.E.B. Du Bois's contention that "oppression and insult [had] become so intense and unremitting that until the world's attitude changes. . . . volunteer union for self-expression and self-defense was essential." Du Bois acknowledged that "the mixed school is the broader, more natural basis for the education of all youth. It gives wider contacts; it inspires greater self-confidence; and suppressed the inferiority complex." But he emphasized that "Negro children needed neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What they need is education."

Ignoring Du Bois's wisdom, civil rights lawyers in the 1960s, including this writer, finally obtained court orders requiring the racial balancing of each school to reflect the racial percentages of black and white children in the system. Those orders were stymied when white parents in droves moved to the suburbs or enrolled their children in private schools. By the 1970s, black parents were expressing doubt that placing their children in hostile white schools was the only way to obtain their primary goal, an effective education.

On the eve of the implementation of court-ordered desegregation in Boston, I sat in on a meeting with NAACP lawyers called by black community leaders. They told the lawyers that black parents in Roxbury were opposed to sending their children into South Boston and other white areas where they would be in physical danger and where, by many measures, the white schools were in worse shape than the black schools the children were currently attending.

I was shocked when the lawyers responded that they shared the parents' concerns, but the law required that they proceed with the racial balance plan, including the busing of black children into hostile white schools. Then, I recalled that years earlier, I had given similar answers to parents in the deep South when they asked why the remedy in Brown could not be used to improve the black schools rather than desegregate them, a process they feared with good reason would result in the closing of black schools and the dismissal of black teachers and principals.

Happily, the good news is that educators rather than lawyers are increasingly in charge of schooling policies in black public and independent schools. Black students are making impressive gains as teachers focus on developing motivation and utilizing teaching techniques designed to meet the barriers to learning faced by students living in poverty. Tardily, it is true, but finally we may be learning from our losses.

Derrick Bell is a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law. He is the author of "Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform." 

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