Are Our Schools Better Off Today? Where Do We Go From Here? By Carol A.O. Wolf The late and great Oliver W. Hill, Esq. was my friend and mentor for the past 25 years and my most valued and vocal constituent for the past six. Thanks to Mr. Hill’s inspiration, unyielding expectations of excellence, and the unfortunate […]
Are Our Schools Better Off Today? Where Do We Go From Here?
By Carol A.O. Wolf
The late and great Oliver W. Hill, Esq. was my friend and mentor for the past 25 years and my most valued and vocal constituent for the past six.
Thanks to Mr. Hill’s inspiration, unyielding expectations of excellence, and the unfortunate fact of his blindness, I received a most special education as one of his privileged “readers.”
“We” read every word of Simple Justice, Richard Kluger’s 798-page legal history of the Brown vs. Board of Education case and subsequent legal decisions. Several times.
To be sure, over the years, we read many other books, including Mr. Hill’s autobiography, The Big Bang: Brown v. Board of Education, and countless legal and political articles. But, we always returned to Kluger’s Simple Justice.
On our third time or fourth time through, I asked why we were re-reading it. His answer was, as always, honest and direct: “Because we are not finished yet. We’ve barely begun.”
And, it was on that day, when I finally “got” what he meant, that he exacted the only promise he ever asked of me. “Do not ever engage in a discussion of the re-segregation of Richmond’s schools – they’ve never been de-segregated.”
Since Mr. Hill and I had ongoing discussions of whether our schools were better because of Brown and what he thought we needed to do to fix them, I feel safe proffering the following answers:
Short answer: No. Our schools are not better off.
Mr. Hill often stated that it was a “sad fact” that although the Warren Court used the Nine-to-Nuthin’ Brown Decision to open the front doors of the schoolhouses of k-12 education, Richard Nixon’s appointment of William H. Rehnquist and Richmond’s own Lewis F. Powell, Jr., to the U.S. Supreme Court helped render the Five-to-Four Milliken Decision (July 25, 1974) which essentially gave those schoolhouses legal back doors for great masses of the white and black middle class to escape the problems of our nation’s cities in favor of life in the suburbs.
In his dissent to the Milliken Decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall noted that poor Negro children would continue to receive “the same inherently unequal education in the future as they have been unconstitutionally afforded in the past.” Justice Marshall further noted that “In the short run, it may seem to be the easier course to allow our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into cities — one white, the other black — but it is a course, I predict, our people will ultimately regret.”
Those who knew Mr. Hill well know that he was not a man given to recriminations. He maintained a cordial “Virginia Gentleman” relationship with Justice Powell. Yet Mr. Hill dryly noted on many occasions that, even though Powell, as chairman of the Richmond School Board, had not supported Virginia’s “massive resistance” to school integration, the board under Powell’s leadership did nothing to integrate Richmond’s schools. In 1961 when Powell stepped down as school board chairman, “precisely two black children” attended school with white students in the city.
Ironically, compared to what it didn’t do for public k-12 education, Brown actually flung open the doors of higher education for African-Americans and for women as evidenced by ever increasing numbers of accomplished and successful attorneys, doctors, business leaders, educators, scientists, authors, journalists and, yes, politicians. Still, we have far more African-American males in our prisons than in our colleges and universities.
Richmond’s problems are not unique. All one has to do is read the newspaper of any major city in this nation to see that we all share the same urgent and sad challenges.
Despite dramatic academic progress and the real and hard-won achievements of dedicated teachers, students and families, we still have a shameful graduation rate, an abysmal dropout rate, sky-rocketing out-of-school suspension rates, and virtual total non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, thus denying “simple access” to our one in six citizens with disabilities.
Where do we go from here?
Before anyone goes crazy enacting NCLB sanctions and dismantling public education as we know it and the good people of our nation intend it, I suggest we revisit the Milliken decision and reconsider not only what Richmond and the region, but what the rest of our nation’s cities, might be like today had that decision gone the other way. Can we find a way to recapture that missed opportunity for equality?
We can all begin by re-reading Simple Justice. Why?
As Mr. Hill said: “Because we are not finished yet. We’ve barely begun.”
Ed Note: Carol Wolf posted this piece as part of her comment to my post about the new civil rights monument to be unveiled on Monday. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission. An excerpt of it was previously published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.