Lola Alapo
A rocky journey to desegregation: 50 years after landmark Supreme Court ruling, potholes still exist in path to parity in education
The Knoxville News Sentinel
February 22, 2004

On the road from segregation to equal educational opportunity, Sarah Moore Greene was a driving force - literally.

Greene, who turns 92 today, chauffeured black children to previously all-white Knoxville schools in the early days of integration.
In 1964 some black parents were afraid to take their children to integrated schools because they feared retaliation from pro-segregationists. So it was Greene who brought it upon herself to use her station wagon to pick up several children from their homes and transport them to her neighborhood school, Park City Lowry. At the end of the day, she would bring them back home.

There was always the concern that someone would try to put an end to her good will.

"Somebody could have violated me and shot into the car. But God protected me," Greene said.

Students today are reaping the sacrifices she and others have made.

"We've made it possible for kids today to be able to go to the school of their choice," Greene said.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that mandated the desegregation of public schools. The judgment unraveled an unfair system years in the making, and called for the access to a fair and equal education for black children.

The May 17, 1954, decision also fueled a lot of other legal victories in the civil rights movement. One triumph was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made racial discrimination in public places such as theaters, restaurants and hotels illegal. It also required employers to provide equal employment opportunities and addressed voting inequities of black Americans.

It took two years before Clinton High School in Anderson County became the first desegregated high school in Tennessee.

The effects of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, however, would not be felt in Knoxville until the 1960s.

Knoxville's shaky beginnings Brown v. Board of Education stemmed from a lawsuit the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People filed on behalf of Linda Brown, a young girl who had to ride a bus several miles across Topeka to a black school even though she lived within walking distance of a white school.

Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer who later became the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, argued the case.

The Supreme Court's ruling stated, "In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment."

The court's rendering gave hope to black activists across the country. Two months later, the Knoxville branch of the NAACP wrote a letter to the city's superintendent of schools requesting a meeting to discuss a desegregation plan. The school board refused.

In 1959 Theotis Robinson was a rising senior at Austin High School when he and other black students tried to enroll at East High School.

At the time, Robinson lived in East Knoxville, about four blocks from East High School. But he attended all-black Austin High two miles away.

"Of course we were all turned away," said Robinson, who is now the vice president of equity and diversity at the University of Tennessee.

As a result of the students' effort, parents filed a lawsuit - Josephine Goss, et al, v. the Board of Education of the City of Knoxville - on behalf of their children, petitioning that they be allowed to attend white schools.

By the time the lawsuit went to court, Robinson had already graduated from Austin. The lawsuit was updated as the students moved to higher grades or graduated.

While Robinson wasn't aware of the impact of their participation, "we knew, of course, that we were living in an era of change. This was one of many events designed to move that change forward."

For Robinson that meant another hurdle to jump when he became one of three black undergraduates who integrated UT-Knoxville in January 1961.

Between 1956 and 1964, there would be letters and resolutions demanding that the schools in Knoxville be desegregated.

Greene said the years in which blacks fought to desegregate the schools were difficult and often frustrating. But they were determined and persisted.

"I didn't go through blood, but I went through a lot of sweat," she said. "There were times I cried in the courtroom, but I stayed."

Greene, who was on the national board of the NAACP for 25 years and helped organize chapters in Alcoa, Oak Ridge and Chattanooga, in 1969 became the first black elected to the Knoxville school board, where she served for 16 years.

In 1960 the Knoxville city school board presented the NAACP with a partial desegregation plan, which would be in effect for the 1960-61 school year.

"They hemmed and hawed and came up with the 'Grade a Year' plan, which was outrageous," said historian Robert Booker.

The plan was a way to implement integration, starting with the first grade and then moving up to the other grades each year. It would have taken almost 12 years before the schools were fully integrated. The NAACP believed the plan was too slow and filed an appeal.

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati intervened in 1962 and ordered the school board to develop a plan to speed up desegregation.

Despite the snail's pace, there had been no bloodshed or riots.

Greene credits the absence of violence to "the sound minds and dedication of the people who were in the forefront. We knew we could get the goal, and we stayed (the course).

"That's why we had a peaceful integration - we negotiated," she said.

That's not to say there weren't some tense times.

Impatient with the unhurried atmosphere, a handful of black youths had unconventional plans to push change along.

"Some of them were going to blow up the Gay Street Bridge one day," Greene said. "When they told me, I talked them out of it. I called all the kids in and asked them, 'I cross that bridge to the hospital. What if it (the explosion) goes off when I'm on the bridge? You want to blow me up?' "

Another time some youngsters wanted to start fires in three different Knoxville locations at the same time.

Greene deterred them yet again.

"I told them, 'We've almost got this thing conquered.' They believed in me," she said.

Greene also credits successes to some whites who stood with the blacks, saying without them, "we wouldn't have been able to make it."

Finally on May 11, 1964, the school board submitted a plan for complete desegregation of Knoxville public schools. The board also approved a plan to merge Austin and East high schools.

"The thing that surprised me was the quiet reaction in Knoxville. I don't think anybody ever thought it would happen," said UT history professor Bruce Wheeler. "Like today, most of the white people thought everything was fine."

Desegregation, while obviously helping black students, also had adverse effects on the black community in East Tennessee and across the country, Booker said.

With school consolidations came the closings of black schools, and as a result black teachers and principals lost their jobs, he said.

When Austin High School was closed in 1968, its students - all black - were sent to all-white East High. It was renamed Austin-East High School.

Within years, most of the white students had left Austin-East, and the school nearly reverted back to what it wasn't supposed to be - segregated.

Austin-East remained mostly black, as did other Knoxville inner-city schools, for the next two decades.

Wrestling with compliance For more than 20 years Knoxville continued to struggle with aspects of desegregation.

In 1989 the Knoxville branch of the NAACP filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights against the city's school system - which merged with the county system in 1987 - because of disparities that it felt still existed.

The complaints included blacks being discriminated against in areas of recruitment, hiring and promoting; black students not chosen for the cheerleading squad at Fulton High School, and a black student discriminated against when she was denied a scholarship.

In its compliance review, the OCR found the school system in violation in two areas - its transfer policy and assignment of educators.

The OCR disagreed with the school system allowing white students to transfer out of mostly black schools and black students to transfer out of mostly white schools. This, the OCR stated, adversely affected the racial composition for a number of schools.

In response, the school system agreed it would not allow such transfers in 12 schools that were termed "racially identifiable" - those with a black enrollment of 33 percent or more - if they further segregated the schools.

With several schools having a disproportionate number of black teachers and administrators, the OCR also found that the system was assigning educators based on race.

To remedy the situation, the system agreed to have a minority faculty member in every elementary, middle and high school. It also reassigned black administrators in racially identifiable schools to other schools to reflect no greater than a 23 percent minority faculty population at any one school.

"It ended up being a $100 million solution that impacted the schools for years," said Sam Anderson, chairman of the Knox County school board.

Anderson was among those who pushed for the complaint in 1989.

"The initial complaint has led to Project GRAD, magnet schools and school renovations," he said.

The purpose of the magnet schools was to stabilize the population of the schools so children would not transfer out to take classes elsewhere, Anderson said. It also helped reduce the number of racially identifiable schools.

Today the school system is able to adjust the racial makeup of schools to a small extent through its transfer policy, said Jimmy Thacker, supervisor of transfers for Knox County Schools. However, transfers are not allowed if they adversely affect the racial makeup of a school.

Approved in 1991, the magnet school program, which is part of the system's voluntary desegregation plan, includes three elementary schools (Beaumont Magnet, Green Magnet Academy, Sarah Moore Greene Magnet), one middle (Vine Middle Magnet) and one high school (Austin-East Magnet).

Magnet schools specialize in sciences and technology, performing arts and academics.

Today the county is trying to level the playing field for children, especially inner-city kids, said Lynn Miller, Knox County magnet schools supervisor.

"How do you take a child from poverty and get them on a level playing field?" she said. "It's about restructuring and reorganizing how we teach. You totally reorient everything."

That's where programs like Project GRAD come in, she said.

Graduation Really Achieves Dreams is a 12-year, $30 million partnership between Knox County Schools and private sponsors. The aim is to help improve the academic performance and future of children in 14 urban schools.

Although the situation has improved and the school system has complied by pumping money into creating better facilities for its students, there is more to be done, said Dewey Roberts, president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP.

"The inner-city kids are not doing as well as their counterparts in the suburbs," he said.

The next step is working to improve test scores and also creating better trust between parents and school administration.

"We feel that can be done by strengthening the bond between the parents, teachers and community in general," Roberts said.

Another movement ahead The Brown v. Board of Education ruling was like the beginning of an earthquake, said Suzanne Pharr, executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, an organization dedicated to social and economic justice.

"Because of desegregation, people have gotten some avenues opened, but they have not gotten equality," she said. "We still have segregated schools and neighborhoods."

Racism continues to manifest itself in the educational system, in areas where economically disadvantaged people live, in the inner city and rural areas, said Ron Davis, a community activist and member of Citizens for Police Review, an organization that calls for more accountability from the criminal justice system.

"We have to figure out how we dismantle racism in our institutions," he said. "We're going to have to struggle through it. But until we give some attention to it in some serious ways, we'll continue to see the kind of disparity that exists."

And like 50 years ago, schoolchildren are going to be the ones to carry on the fight, Greene said.

"You've got to go on to reach higher heights for your children coming on. We can't stop here. That's what the children need to understand," she said.

"Here in Knoxville we need to work on racism," she said. "If we could conquer that, then we won't have to worry about schools being resegregated."

In the next 5-10 years, the major issues having to do with education will not be those of race, Wheeler said, but of parity in schools - good and up-to-date textbooks, good teachers and programs for superior students.

One has to increase the dialogue between the black and white middle class to get things done, he said.

"When black and white parents discover that they have more in common in terms of what they want for their kids, that's going to be a huge movement."