Award-winning journalists John Camp and Bob Courtney examine the 45-year-old East Baton Rouge Parish desegregation lawsuit in a documentary called American Apartheid. Since the original desegregation lawsuit was filed in 1956 on behalf of 37 North Baton Rouge students, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system has spent millions of dollars in court costs, gone through seven superintendents and the case has been handled by numerous federal judges, most notably Federal Judge John Parker, who quit the case recently after 22 years. It is the longest running school desegregation suit in America.
Many people, including Governor Mike Foster, feel that federal involvement in these cases is not helping the people of the state. “You have over 50% of the school districts in the state that are being run by the courts and not the local school boards,” Governor Mike Foster said. “I don’t see it as a racial issue anymore. I think the African-American community is as frustrated with it as anyone else.”
The suit was filed in 1956 when the school system refused to let African-American students attend Rosenwald Elementary, a school constructed by black parents with the help of Sears and Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald. When the historic Brown versus The Board of Education suit led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare that segregation was unconstitutional, attorney Johnny Jones field suit on behalf of the children of Baton Rouge. “We thought we had the answer,” Jones said. “We thought we had the answer in 1954.”
One of the plaintiffs in the original suit was current Southern University professor Roena Wilford. “There are deeper scars that I guess were embedded and still remain because I got the impression that if I couldn’t go, if I wasn’t allowed to go to school with the other kids, then I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t smart enough to cope with them,” Wilford said.
Charles Burchell, now a psychologist with the New Orleans Police Department, was one of 14 black students from Capitol and McKinley who voluntarily transferred to Baton Rouge High School as part of a Freedom of Choice plan which failed to desegregate schools. “My parents said it was up to you and I said if I didn’t go, then what will everybody say,” Burchell said. “They would say that you guys could go and didn’t choose to go.”
The first major desegregation plan in the parish was implemented in the fall of 1970. Baker, Lee, Baton Rouge High, Istrouma, Glen Oaks and Zachary High Schools were all opened up to black students who lived in those school districts and there were some assignment of white students to predominantly black schools. However, all the traditionally black schools and most of the traditionally white schools were not affected by the plans except for the fact that the faculties at every school were integrated.
Federal District Judge John Parker took over the case in 1979 and the U.S. Justice Department intervened in the case. After rejecting the school board’s voluntary desegregation plan that featured a large number of magnet schools, Judge Parker implemented a plan that involved the pairing and clustering of elementary schools and modified high school and middle school plans. His original order called for the middle schools to be single grade centers. That means that each school would have only one grade and there would be sixth, seventh and eighth grade centers. To avoid having students go to three different schools during their middle school careers, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board came up with its own plan that was in effect for more than 15 years.
Why did the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Parker rule against the school board? School board statistics show that 76 of the 79 schools built in the parishes since the 1950s to the 1970s opened as one-race schools.
Superintendent Bernard Weiss pushed a voluntary program called Redesign through in the late 1980s that gave more authority to the local schools and set up special programs at schools to voluntarily attract students such as health careers, computers, extended day classes and Montessori programs. Many people believe these programs were never sufficiently funded and Redesign never provided enough voluntary desegregation to continue its operation.
When Gary Mathews took the helm of the school system, one of his main goals was to get a settlement of the case. In 1996, the Board entered into a consent decree designed to “raise and equalize the level of the educational experience provided students.” The school board agreed to upgrade classrooms and provide resources to insure diversity.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect plan, particularly in a metropolitan area like Baton Rouge,” Former School Board attorney Robert Hammonds said. “People are going to choose to live where they choose to live, and that is going to directly impact the ability to formulate school districts where you have racially balanced school populations.”
What has this 45-year court battle done to the school system? After all the magnet school, redesign, and busing plans implemented since 1979, the school system is now 70% black and many of the school buildings are run down and need to be replaced because the system could not pass a construction tax issue for more than 30 years. The white population in EBR schools has dropped from 42,000 to less than 15,000 since the case was reactivated in 1979 and the overall school population has dropped by more than 10,000 during the last decade. Many white families have fled to Livingston and Ascension Parishes, two of the three fastest growing parishes in the state, and the private and parochial schools have also grown significantly during this time.
This documentary looks at the history of this case and history of school desegregation in the state. It includes interviews with former students, parents, lawyers, school board members, superintendents, NAACP officials and consultants about what has happened and hasn’t happened over the last 45 years.
“Had the school board and community embraced the idea and gone ahead and done the things we needed to do, we would have long had this behind us and the community would have been moving forward,” School Board member Press Robinson said. “I think we would have had less white flight and our school system would have been in better shape than today.”
With a new judge handling the case and the school board’s new lawyers about to ask the courts to declare the system unitary, which would take EBR from under federal control, this documentary sheds some light on this frustrating and controversial case.
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