Desegregation in Schools

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Desegregation is the process of ending race-based separation or segregation. Although the North was thought to do this faster than the South, there were still areas that dragged their feet even after desegregation became the law. Desegregation was officially ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954. Since there was no concrete timeline as to when schools had to be desegregated, most schools took that as a chance to delay the desegregation.

Desegregation attempts began after Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. This case, which was based on the segregation of public schools, was handled by Thurgood Marshall and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case was brought to the United States District Court, the judges ruled in favor of the school board. Unsatisfied with this decision, the plaintiff appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall argued segregated schools made black children feel inferior to white children and that segregated schools should not be permissible by law. The United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were in fact unconstitutional. Due to the backlash the United States Supreme Court knew it would face, it decided to delay the release of a concrete plan and timeline on the desegregation of schools. Southern schools obviously fought this the hardest as most southerners did not want integrated schools. The South continued to keep their schools segregated without much pressure until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in public areas, to include schools, and placed a ban on employment discrimination. Applicants were no longer allowed to be rejected from a job position based on their race, color, religion, sex or national origin. This act was proposed by John F. Kennedy and was signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson. In regard to school systems, this was the beginning of the pressure to desegregate schools. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade federal funding to go towards any programs that were discriminatory. As each year passed, the Supreme Court dialed up the heat on the areas that chose to avoid the desegregation of schools.

In 1971, the Swann vs. Charlotte-Meckleburg Board of Education case was presented to the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court decided busing programs would aid in the desegregation of schools. This decision was not only criticized by whites, but also by African Americans. African Americans saw the busing plan as harmful to African American students because they had to endure long commutes to and from school. Despite criticism, the busing plan continued in some areas up until the 1990s. The busing plan did result in a white flight. White flight is a term described as the quick movement of white families away from the suburbs and the inner city when African Americans began to move to those areas. Whites did this to avoid having to send their children to integrated schools. Busing was not a big issue in rural areas, African Americans and whites lived in the same communities and often just attended their local neighborhood school, which happened to be the same place for both races. In urban areas, African Americans and whites did not live in the same neighborhoods. The African Americans lived in one neighborhood and the whites lived in separate neighborhoods. Busing seemed like a viable option to the United States Supreme Court to encourage desegregation. This plan often forced students to schools that were far from their homes. In the 1980s, the United States Supreme Court slowly began pulling back on their reign on local courts. Eventually, the United States Supreme Court passed the courts back down to local authorities. After the busing plan was no longer strictly enforced by local authorities, people went back to attending their original schools due to the closeness of schools to their homes. This seemingly reversed the progress made in regards to desegregated schools. Eventually, state constitutions began including in their constitutions that schools are not allowed to purposely segregate African American and white students. The focus became less on desegregation and more on the quality of schools each race went to.

I interviewed Mrs. Eugenia Burnett. Mrs. Burnett is my mother. She is an African American woman born in 1964. She experienced desegregation while growing up in New York. Mrs. Burnett remembers when she was 8 years old attending an elementary school that was desegregated. She was the only African American female in attendance because her father was a principal. Her father was one of three African American principals in upstate New York. Her older sister also experienced life during desegregation as she was in high school at the time. Mrs. Burnett explained that she knew there were hostility among the white parents. They did not want their children attending school with an African American. Mrs. Burnett claimed she was bullied on the playground and called the n word by her peers every day up until the sixth grade. She said it made her scared and sometimes it would make her mad. When she asked why she was bullied, she was told it was because she was an African American. She asked her father why people bullied her and called her names. Mr. Eugene Brooks told my mother that the students only know what they have been told. It was their lifestyle. The parents of white students, projected their views onto their children and the children took what they learned from home and brought it to school. Her father told her that she had to show them that she was not lazy, that she was not stupid and that she was not trying to steal anything from them. Her mother had a much different outlook on the situation. Her mother told her, that she had to fight whites to show them she was real. She had to do what it takes to include beating them. Mrs. Burnett said her parents had influential civil rights advocates as friends to include Bayard Rustin who was a civil rights advocate and a key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr.

Mrs. Burnett said that her experiences do affect her views on current events. She believes African Americans should stop worrying about trivial issues and need to work together and move forward as a community.

This information was all new to me. I did not realize that desegregation was such a long process. It was interesting to learn that whites were willing to relocate in order to avoid having their children attend schools with African American children. It is also sad that people would be so cruel to others based off of something that is an uncontrollable factor in their life such as the color of their skin. It was refreshing to read about how supportive the United States Supreme Court was in regards to those people who wanted to desegregate schools. They did try to find a way to expedite desegregation, but with school districts being so resistant, it was obvious that it would be a hard goal to meet. It seemed beneficial to allow local authorities to regain control of local school systems as then they no longer felt micromanaged and that they could make decisions for themselves. Most states included that discrimination and segregation was no longer something they wanted in school systems. Because the states feel like they made that choice on their own, people in those states were more likely to follow it than if some outside party forced that decision upon them.

As for family history, I never got a chance to get to know my grandparents on my mother’s side as they passed away when I was little. I never knew how much they contributed to their community. My grandmother was name Medical Technical of the Year in 1968 and received acknowledgement from Robert Kennedy. My grandfather was a principal in upstate New York during this time. My grandmother told my mother to fight but I feel like maybe there was a point in her life where she probably agreed with what my grandfather told my mother, in that proving to people you are not a thief and that you are smart and educated is the way to go. My grandfather has a middle school in Amenia, New York named after him. My grandparents were brilliant despite the hardships they endured. It goes to show that with hard work and perseverance will get you far in life. Writing this paper helped me gather more background information about family members that was not apparent to me before. If I had chosen a different topic, I may still not know that history. I definitely think learning from the past and what my parents and grandparents experienced just adds to history. It was nice taking advantage of my mother’s personal accounts of her own experiences that would not have come up in any other conversation except in that of this paper. This will lead me to ask both my parents about their experiences in regards to the same topics to see how vastly different their experiences are. This was quite the learning experience, that I did not know was in front of me until I was forced to ask a living person about accounts of their life about a topic I needed to complete for a paper. It made me realize how much history and how many stories I have not heard that pertain to the events that took place when my parents were young or even growing up.

Learning about how my mother was treated as a young girl did make me sad. It was hard talking about how she was bullied and called awful names all because of what children got from their parents. I am very glad that she did not allow those experiences to make her cold to the world because to be rejected by fellow peers as a child can be very harmful to healthy mental development. I will use her hardships as motivation as I know nothing in my life will be as hard as it was in hers and I am thankful both my parents made it that way for me.

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