Why school board elections should matter to Black People
by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod
“In the first place, God made idiots.
That was for practice. Then He made school boards.”
Humorist Mark Twain
(Note: This is the second of two SHE: Surviving, Healing, and Evolving Women’s History articles that go beyond the month of March and into April in light of the fact that many people, all over the country, will be asked, over the next several days, to take part in the political process by voting in local elections. Besides, women’s history should be read every month!)
Dateline May 17, 1954. You would have thought a nuclear bomb had exploded. Or was it just Pearl Harbor all over again? Almost from the moment the lead attorney, a super lawyer named Thurgood Marshall,* emerged from the United States Supreme Court building—victorious in one of the most influential cases in American jurisprudence—White people all over the country, not just in the deep south, went ballistics. All the Court did was announce that the legal doctrine of “separate but equal,” which, essentially, had been enshrined into the law by the Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, had no place in public education. It violated the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause of the US Constitution. The Brown Court stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” (Also, with the Court’s ruling, effectively, the separate but equal myth was unmoored in other aspects of life and society, too.) Oh my God. A Mississippi judge derided the day of the decision as “Black Monday,” and wrote a pamphlet advancing the deranged notion that White girls who attended schools with Blacks would be endangered.
Black and White people alike had known full well that there had never been any such thing as “separate but equal” in American society. It was a legal fiction created by lawmakers, and supported by judges and justices, who knew full well they were giving legal sanction to a ruse designed to keep Black people in a subordinate social, political, and economic position. However, Blacks who challenged segregation in schools were often met with vicious violence. The perspicacious Derrick Bell, the first Black tenured law professor at Harvard who had (later) worked, like Marshall, for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund, said that parents and activists who fought against segregated schools became “special objects of hatred by Whites — and persons to be avoided by many, but thank goodness not all, Blacks.”*
Despite the inherent unfairness of separate but unequal, Black people managed to create exceptionally strong communities through brilliance, very hard work, and admirable faith. Indeed, shortly after slavery ended, despite being victimized by White violence time and time again, Black people in many cities managed to build up and prosper. Montgomery, Alabama and, later, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma (Black Wall Street), represent just two, of many, examples where Black people worked extremely hard and did well.
Also, during The Great Migration wherein Blacks from the South fled North, Chicago’s Black south side became a thriving commercial and social district, in spite of horrific social, labor, economic, and policing policies and practices designed to keep Blacks subjugated. White people would catch taxicabs, because they did not want to be seen going into Black neighborhoods, so they could partake of and enjoy the brilliant cultural scene and the live entertainment at Black night clubs. Yes, many in Black Chicago were subjected to grinding poverty from which they were trying to fight their way out of, and, yet and still, eventually, Chicago claimed the largest number of Black millionaires in the country for a longtime!
So, the unanimous victory in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1954) had nothing to do with Black people wanting their children to sit next to White children in schools;* it had to do with the fact that “Black” schools had always experienced devastating inequities in the distribution of state funds and resources. Black teachers, no matter what credentials they held, were paid a paltry sum compared to their White counterparts, and “Black” schools were often dilapidated, and even unsafe, structures that featured horrific restroom facilities and leaking roofs. The schools were often severely overcrowded and poorly-equipped. Textbooks in “Black” schools were, often, several editions old—many times they were books that had been discarded at “White” schools—and often they were defaced with missing pages.
Additionally, to reinforce upon them how society did not care about their education, many Black students, either trudged by contemporary “White” schools to get to their shacks, or watched as White kids passed them by as they were being transported by bus — while Black kids fought the elements as they walked, often, long distances to their schools. Public spending per pupil in southern Black schools was always a fraction of what was spent on pupils in white schools. In many southern counties, expenditures for Black education was discontinued after eighth grade, so that there were no area high schools for Black students to attend. Today, even though Black parents have waged an incredible fight for the public education of their children, the battle for “education equity” is far, far, far from over.
After the Brown decision was handed down by the Supremes, making it the law of the land, immediately, and for years, White officials in several states and school districts across the country simply flat out refused to comply with the Court’s orders. After all, the basis for segregationist laws, to begin with, was to keep Blacks in an inferior position in society, to thwart their attempts at accessing economic, political, and social power, and to prevent them from being self-determining. And, since education has long been considered a powerful vehicle to success and equality, all kinds of machinations were employed in the ensuing years after Brown.
Across the south, members of the White Citizens Councils, many of whom were wealthy businessmen and elected officials, used economic tactics (e.g. loss of employment, loans, and credit) to keep Black parents from trying to enroll their children in all White schools. In 1959, Prince Edward County in Virginia closed down their public school system altogether, rather than allow Black pupils to attend school with White pupils! Slyly, the Prince Edward Foundation set up “private” schools for White children, but they were still allowed to use public funds and county tax credits! They also hired White public school teachers. The county did not reopen public schools until it was forced to by a Court ruling in 1964. In the meantime, for years, Black parents had been forced to scramble to determine how to educate their children.
Noting that, years after the Brown decision, Whites were still steadfastly fighting the implementation of the Court’s order, Professor Bell said: “Even a dozen years after the Supreme Court’s decision holding racial segregation in state-run facilities unconstitutional, legions of Whites in the deep south determined, often violently, that the Court’s desegregation orders would never be enforced. For them, separate and unequal was more than a racial policy, it was a self-defeating narcotic under the influence of which even the lowliest white person could feel superior.”
Negative responses to full integration were not confined to the south. Northerners were busy using zoning laws, housing patterns — aided by racially restrictive covenants, redlining, and block busting — school districting lines, and public policy to insure de facto segregation. In 1974, a major crisis erupted in Boston as White parents reacted fiercely and violently against busing Black students into all-White neighborhoods for school. Signs reading “Nigger go home,” and pictures of monkeys were just a few of the many things Black students encountered going into South Boston. By October in the school year, the Boston Globe was reporting that the city had gotten “out of control,” as local police, ultimately supplemented by the state police, struggled to maintain public order. Many argue that the Boston crisis has left an indelible stain on that city’s history. Indeed, many books have been written trying to explain that public, televised debacle which featured White men and housewives hurling projectiles, and yelling vicious threats and hurtful racial epithets, at Black children.
Enter Onto the American Stage Mrs. Daisy Bates
Although the threat of racial violence was a powerful deterrent in many southern communities, still there were many battles all over the south for desegregation. Indeed, before the fights in Prince Edward County and Boston, there was the showdown in Little Rock, Arkansas. The strategist leading the charge for Black parents, was a “charming” but forceful, no-nonsense woman, from the small sawmill town of Huttig, named Daisy Bates. She and several high school students, who ultimately came to be called the “Little Rock Nine,” displayed the kind of courage, strength, and resolve that can only be described as epic.
In 1957, tired of all the delays in which state and local officials and groups in Arkansas were engaged regarding the issue of school desegregation, Daisy, flew into, seemingly, non-stop purposeful action. The Arkansas state president of the NAACP, Daisy, and her husband, L. C. Bates, published a weekly Black newspaper, the Arkansas State Press, which consistently challenged racism, discrimination, and police brutality. A warrior of strong conviction, Daisy had been victimized by unspeakable injustice as a young girl. Her mother was brutally raped and murdered by white men who were never charged. Her father, devastated and humiliated, left Daisy with friends before disappearing. Before Daisy’s adopted father died, he admonished her to transform her contempt for Whites into a fight against injustice and she did.
After the Brown decision, the school board of the capitol city of Little Rock had approved a three-stage desegregation plan. However, Daisy Bates and the NAACP filed suit alleging that the board was not implementing the plan fast enough. A federal judge ruled that the board had to begin implementation, and they began “screening” Black students for entrance into Central, one of the three high schools in the city. At least 60 Back students applied, 17 were admitted, but only nine ultimately enrolled. (Daisy had taken on the school board about its practice of attempting to screen out dark-skinned applicants, too.)
It appeared that the desegregation plan might have been executed without as much rancor as in other places, but the state’s governor, Orval Faubus, while running for reelection, had begun pandering to White segregationists in an effort to defeat his opponent. Interestingly, previously, Faubus had been a “moderate” on race who had integrated the state’s Democratic Party and appointed African Americans to state jobs. His state and school integration was highlighted by a Life magazine article in 1955 because desegregation went smoothly in Hoxie, Arkansas. But when Faubus ran for reelection against the state director of the White Citizens Council, Jim Johnson, he altered his stance. Johnson advocated for a state amendment that would, supposedly, “nullify” the Brown decision, so Faubus began proposing segregationist responses to school integration and stated that “no school district will be forced to mix the races as long as I am governor of Arkansas” ( Defining, pg. 148) Later, he famously said “blood will run in the streets” if the schools in Little Rock tried to comply with Brown.
Many people know President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into Central High School. The National Guard, which had first been called up by Faubus, to prevent the nine Black students from enrolling in Central High, now had to stand sentry to protect those adolescents from White adults who screamed, jeered, and launched profanities and projectiles. (Viewing the newsreel, even today, is shocking to the conscience of right thinking people.)
What many people do not know is how much Daisy Bates fought for the Little Rock Nine, and how much both she and the nine students suffered. Historian, Lerone Bennett, Jr., wrote in Ebony magazine, that Daisy and her husband “bore the brunt of a systematic campaign of terror and intimidation. Their home was under continuous siege. Bombs, bottles, and bricks rained on their lawn. During the height of the crisis, segregationists in the school district distributed placards bearing the legend: DAISY BATES—WANTED.”* Crosses were burned on her lawn and shots were fired into her home. At one point, police prevented several cars from reaching the Bateses, and Bennett, Jr. reported that the thugs in the cars had “enough dynamite to blow up the whole neighborhood.” Furthermore, Daisy and her husband lost their newspaper due to revenue losses sustained when advertisers began to withheld ads.
Yet, Daisy Bates was unceasing in her quest to support the Little Rock Nine. She counseled, encouraged, and kept the nine and their parents informed about everything that transpired. She joined the PTA, and admonished public officials and “moderate” Whites to demonstrate fidelity to the language contained in the Brown order. After Faubus commanded the National Guard troops to turn the students away from Central High, Daisy set up a makeshift school at Philander Smith College and recruited teachers from there and the University of Arkansas to teach them.
It took several court orders and attempts, in the face of threats and dangerous and unruly mobs, to integrate Central High. Eisenhower’s military intervention took place because the Mayor of Little Rock, Woodrow Mann, pleaded with him to send help as the “situation was out of control” and peace needed to be restored. Moreover, Faubus, the governor, was actively defying federal court orders. (The mayor had already shared his “deep resentment at the manner in which the governor has chosen to use this city as a pawn in what clearly is a political design of his own.”)*
When the federal troops finally arrived, they descended on Daisy’s house to escort the students to Central. Daisy described the scene, “The streets were blocked off. The soldiers closed ranks. Neighbors came out and looked. The street was full, up and down. Oh, it was beautiful. And the attitude of the children at that moment, the respect they had. I could hear them saying, ‘For the first time in my life, I truly feel like an American.’ I could see it in their faces; somebody cares for me, America cares.”*
The Little Rock Nine were finally enrolled, but the school year exacted an unconscionable toll on those youngsters. They were constantly verbally abused, spat upon, and physically assaulted by White students, some of whom threatened to kill them. Glass, pencils, and other objects were thrown at them, and they were not properly protected by teachers, some of whom were afraid of backlash from the community. White students were constantly trying to provoke them into a fight, knowing that they would be the ones suspended or expelled. One student did get expelled. It was an awful, awful year for the students who bravely persevered, as Daisy encouraging them to stay strong under almost intolerable circumstances. After the school year had elapsed, some of the students transferred to out of state schools, but two, ultimately, graduated from the school. All of the students went on to be successful in life, and to be honored for their pioneering ways. Daisy Bates was honored time and again for her intelligent strategy, her unrelenting spirit, and her successful tactics in orchestrating the Little Rock Nine’s entrance into Central High.
Historically, like Orval Faubus of Arkansas, many politicians have made quite a name for themselves, stoking up latent racist fears about schools and the quality of education students can receive when Black children enter the building. Others run for school boards, not so they can advocate for the best interests and wellbeing of students, but for personal gain.
It is high time we, the people, get this education issue right. All American children deserve a world-class education. Citizens need to take their votes for school board members, and other elected officials, seriously. Educating our youth is one of the most important things we must do for the healthy development and success of our youths. Think about that as you vote for members of your school boards.
*An ecstatic Thurgood Marshall said when the Court’s ruling was handed down, he was “numb,” because he was so happy. As the chief lawyer for the (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund, he had been waging court battles against school boards on behalf of Black parents and students for years. He also sued universities on behalf of Black students. Marshall, of course, would go on to be the Solicitor General before President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to be the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court.
*Derrick Bell quotes are in: Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post Civil Rights American, by Paul Street, pgs. 22 & 23
*In fact, Brown University Professor, James Patterson, wrote, in Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and its Troubled Legacy:
“ What [the plaintiffs in the Brown cases] and other [Black] parents yearned for above all was part of the American Dream: equal opportunities for their children. That is why schools, which as later events indicated, were among the toughest of all institutions to desegregate, became some of the fiercest battlegrounds in conflicts between the races in postwar America. Like many white people, the parents and students who engage in these struggles believed in a central creed of Americans: schools offered the ticket to advancement in life. I was a creed that forced schools to the center of racial turmoil for the remainder of the century.
“Until 1950, these parents and their allies most often demanded educational equality, not desegregation: a separate-but-equal system of schools was tolerable if it was truly equal. It was only when they became convinced that whites would never grant equality that they began to call for the dismantling of Jim Crow in the schools.” (pg. 36)
*Many Blacks were able to get rich by simply meeting the needs of Black people. As just a few examples:
Madame C J Walker became fabulously wealthy by attending to Black women’s hair care needs. Robert Sengstacke Abbott became wealthy by reporting on information important to Black people, including lynchings in the south, in the paper he founded, the Chicago Defender, which became one of the most influential papers in the country. John H. Johnson, the publisher of Ebony, Jet, and Black World magazine, saw that the stories of Black people were not being told in then popular magazines, like Look, Life, and Time, so he began telling our stories to great success. He, famously, ran the photograph (that shocked the world) of young Emmett Till’s bloated, grotesque body in his casket after he was murdered in Mississippi. He also, famously, became the first Black man to own an office high rise building on Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue. Also, many white car dealerships hassled Black people when they tried to buy high end cars, so several Blacks like Al Johnson, and several others, became rich with their own car dealerships.
*Lerone Bennett, Jr. quotes from Ebony magazine, December, 1997, pg. 136
*Mayor of Little Rock quoted in: Defining Moments: Brown v. Board of Education, by Diane Telgen, copyright 2005, Omnigraphics, Inc.
*Daisy Bates quoted in Lerone Bennett, Jr. Ebony magazine article, December, 1997, pg. 140
(Sources updated: April, 4, 2017 at 9:10 pm)