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School Desegregation Battle: A Thing of the Past . . . and the Present

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- "Courage: The Carolina Story That Changed America" has returned to its original home at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte after a long time on the road. It took the story of the South Carolina case that led to the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision -- striking down school segregation -- to Atlanta, Baltimore, New York and the Museum of Tolerance, a Simon Wiesenthal Center museum in Los Angeles. Parts of the exhibition were used in a tour of South African museums arranged by the U.S. State Department.

As it moves back into the Levine, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, the historical perspective of "Courage" could not be timelier. It comes as the country stops to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., though part of his dream -- equal educational opportunity for all children – is marred by achievement gaps and high dropout rates. The conflicts of more than 50 years ago echo today, though divisions are as much economic as racial. And an added section, on the 1946 U.S. Court of Appeals case Mendez v. Westminster School District in California, which ended school segregation for Mexican-Americans, expands the issue beyond black and white.

Brown vs. Board of EducationIt has become much more complicated since Levi Pearson, of Clarendon County, S.C., filed a lawsuit because taxes paid for 30 buses to carry white children to schools of brick and stucco while black children walked nine miles to unheated wooden one-room schools without indoor plumbing.

Today in Charlotte, proposals to balance shrinking budgets have led to complaints that school closings and assignment changes discriminate against black and Hispanic students. The U.S. Education Department is investigating. Deciding how to celebrate King's day has itself started a debate after it was announced that Monday would be a snow make-up day for Charlotte-Mecklenburg students. The president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP urged parents to keep children home to acknowledge King's legacy; Mayor Anthony Foxx, who is African-American, said it was "regrettable" that the snow make-up day was Monday but that it was important for children to attend school when it is in session.

In Wake County, North Carolina, a new school board's return to neighborhood assignments will mean less racial and socioeconomic diversity. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan criticized the decision in a letter in Thursday's Washington Post. It said that complaints have "prompted an investigation by our Office for Civil Rights, but it should also prompt a conversation among educators, parents and students across America about our core values. Those core values, embodied in our founding documents, subsequent amendments and court rulings, include equity and diversity in education and opportunity."

In 2004, the "Courage" exhibition "touched a nerve" and exceeded all attendance expectations because the story "resonated with everyone," according to Levine president Emily Zimmern. Today, it leads to questions, "ones our whole community is wrestling with," she said, such as "what is the meaning of equal educational opportunity in the 21st century?" In the exhibition's yearlong stay, the museum has planned a series of programs and conversations, such as one featuring Fox News commentator Juan Williams.

That one asks: "Courage: Where Do We Need It Now?"

The events of the 1940s and 1950s offered clear examples of heroic actions. A case from Topeka, Kansas, gave the historic 1954 decision its name. But it was a brave group of South Carolinians (five cases were combined in Brown) who took on the fight when they had everything, including their lives, to lose, when Jet magazine had to organize food lifts because merchants refused to sell to them.

Harry Briggs, a service station attendant, and his wife, Eliza, a maid, signed first and second on a 1949 petition for educational equality and lent their names to the original Briggs v. Elliott suit. Like others who stood up in public, they lost their jobs and livelihood and were forced to eventually leave home.

The Rev. J.A. DeLaine led the fight, though his church was torched -- a charred Bible remains -- and his home burned while the fire department stood by watching the flames. When he returned shotgun fire to mark the car of those shooting into his house, he was forced into exile, escaping that night and never able to go home. (In 2000, more than 25 years after his death, South Carolina cleared him of all charges.)

They convinced Thurgood Marshall to take a case he first thought was too rural, too poor, too far, and he eventually argued it before the Supreme Court. With Pearson, they received Congressional Gold Medals of Honor, posthumously, in 2004.

It's much easier to recognize their courage than face current challenges. However, "if you begin to know the history," said museum historian and "Courage" curator Tom Hanchett, "the conversation gets wiser."

Click here to follow Mary C. Curtis on Twitter.

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The Black education problem is first and foremost an American problem. Unfortunately, Black people are not going away. You can' make a fist to fight
if one of your fingers is missing or broken. You can solve the education problem
in minority community in ten minuets without busing a single student, spending another dime or castigating the parent. Simply, rotate the best teachers to the
underperforming schools every five years for one year. The bad teachers will be exposed
and either get better or leave. Every kid will be likewise exposed to a superior teacher at
almost every grade level. The teachers who rotate in would be compensated by a
20% pay raise for that year (tax free). Test scores would raise within a year.
Drop out rates would likewise decline. This is so simple its sad.

January 25 2011 at 12:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What is the purpose of school desegregation? Is it because blacks can study at suburbia predominent white schools and White kids can travel to urban predominent black school? If so, What does this have anything to do with "EDUCATION"???Education is about "learing" not "Racial Politic"...When politics is injected into anything, its like a kiss of death...Our failed schools are living examples of racial politics...

January 17 2011 at 9:51 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

As a white man I can say this is terribly racist. How is it even legal to have the make-up day on a holiday. The Carolina's are some of the most racist states. (All my family coming from South Carolina and West Virginia.) What a disgusting way to try to screw over black society.

January 17 2011 at 8:28 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Akron's comment

Why didn't they do what most districts do and take a day off of the spring vacation, or add 1 day to the end of the year? It is very suspect they chose MLK Day instead of other solutions.

January 17 2011 at 8:50 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The public schools in the days before integration never needed armed guard on duty to keep order., I won't offer my opinion of the cause of that situation but it certainly wasn't because of the mix of white and black students that integration brought about.

January 17 2011 at 8:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I'm loving it!

January 17 2011 at 8:16 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Arize Okeke

Desegregation, integration...but no economic empowerment. "Post-racial" indeed. Whites & Asians have their own banks. Where's our Black banks?

Equality for Black people CAN NOT and WILL NOT exist without ECONOMICS.

I want to show some links but I don't know the policy here so I'll pass.


January 17 2011 at 4:38 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply

(Sigh) We have come so far...but we were walking in circles...

January 17 2011 at 4:19 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Interesting portrayal of history, but there is where it belongs - in history. The days of separating neighborhood children in schools should now be long gone. Diversity is not a necessary right - certainly not now. You have to earn your way in this world, and believe me, it is hard no matter who you are...

January 17 2011 at 3:59 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Democratic policies have done much to maintain an urban underclass, a pool of voters dependent on handouts and largely trapped in poverty, ignorance, and removed from economic opportunity. Alert voters would never fall for the deal, would they?

January 17 2011 at 3:01 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to oldengineera2's comment

I certainly would not fall for that distorted picture of reality.

January 17 2011 at 3:43 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

Memphis city schools spend $10,000 per student. The city schools are 93 % minority and have a 70% graduation rate. The county schools spend $8000 per student, have 50% minority rate, and a 96% graduation rate. Money, obviously, is not the answer. Getting rid of union influence and rewarding teachers for good work, rather than attendance is.

January 17 2011 at 1:47 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to drdave415's comment

Unions and teachers should not be the only consideration.

Minority students in county schools most likely live in family units with a higher social-economic standing.

Minority students from inner cities tend to live in poverty and broken homes. Those students go to school with empty stomachs and lives empty of dreams.

January 17 2011 at 2:22 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply

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