The Boy on the Bus - Growing Up in 1970s Florida, I Was a Small Cog In America's Grand Integration Project. We Thought It Worked. Did It?
By Joel Achenbach
Every morning when I was in fifth grade, I walked a mile down the road to Stephen Foster Elementary, my neighborhood school. Then I got on a yellow school bus and rode across town. The Supreme Court had issued a desegregation order. It was 1970. Men had landed on the moon twice. Now white kids and black kids would go to the same schools.
The court order roiled Gainesville, Fla., and the rest of Alachua County. Private academies sprouted overnight to accommodate white families that bailed on the public schools. But most white folks hoped for the best, and their kids headed to what many of them had always considered the wrong side of the tracks.
The Supreme Court has recently revisited school integration, declaring, to gasps from many liberals and academics, that the government can't use race as a criterion for assigning students to schools. But 37 years ago, the government not only took race into account, it also assembled a fleet of buses and began hauling white kids and black kids back and forth across town like so much cargo.
It was, in retrospect, an ambitious social experiment. It was also clumsy, and at some level outrageous, reducing all of us to a single characteristic of white or black.
For me it was ultimately a good experience, a chance to
get outside the bubble of the white Southern Baptist neighborhood where my eccentric Unitarian, single-parent family had always lived. But I know that others experienced it differently. And I wonder to this day whether it was truly a major step toward a more egalitarian nation, or just a momentary spasm in a society that has remained essentially befuddled by race.
This much is certain: Those buses were slow, loud, crowded. You could feel every shift of gears. Railroad crossing: Gotta stop, yank open the bus door, make sure no train is coming. Day after day, we growled along 39th Avenue, due east, then turned south on Waldo Road, past a sun-blasted terrain of pine trees, gas stations, warehouses, radio towers, overgrown lots -- a chaotic jumble of stuff on the ragged boundary between the city and the scrub.
Eventually we reached our goal: Charles W. Duval Elementary School.
Here's something one 9-year-old couldn't have imagined in 1970: That four decades later, society would remain segregated in many respects, including public schools. That busing would be abandoned as a tool for achieving racial balance. That Duval would become nearly all-black again. That "integration" would become a dated word.
As the Rev. Thomas Wright, a pioneer in the struggle for school integration in Alachua County, told me last week,
"We wound up with a dual system all over again."
Hark back to 1970. The Vietnam War was dragging along, bleeding into Cambodia. Student protests shut down campuses. National Guardsmen gunned down four students at Kent State. Feminism found its voice. The environmental movement took off.
And the Jim Crow era was finally ending. Racism remained. It was like humidity -- always there, saturating the atmosphere. North Florida is part of the Deep South. Even a college town -- Gainesville is home to the University of Florida -- wasn't immune. Alachua County was among the last places in America to integrate.
All through the 1960s, the white public schools had just a token black student or two. For every KKK lunatic, there were countless good folks who were frightened by the idea of mixed-race schools. To put it in perspective: Even the Florida Gators, the university football team, didn't field a single black player until wide receiver Willie Jackson got his chance in the fall of 1970.
Desegregation came about only through much trauma and struggle by a few idealistic civil rights leaders -- among them the Rev. Wright, whose daughter, LaVon, was one of three black students to integrate Gainesville High School. The FBI told Wright that it wasn't safe to let LaVon take the bus to school. He had to drop her off and pick her up. White students called her every name in the book. She was beaten up.
"We had to know what integration was like," Wright said. "It was not exactly what we thought it would be."
Then came busing. Most whites lived on the west side of town, most blacks on the east. In a 1971 decision upholding forced busing, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote: "The remedy for such segregation may be administratively awkward, inconvenient and even bizarre in some situations and may impose burdens on some; but all awkwardness and inconvenience cannot be avoided in the interim period when remedial adjustments are being made to eliminate the dual school systems."
Yes, I found it rather awkward going to Duval, but only because I found it rather awkward being alive, being 9 years old, being kind of brainy and very skinny and self-conscious about our family being poor (though probably not as poor as most of the kids who walked to Duval from the neighborhood). I was 57 pounds of insecurity.
And those girl creatures: transfixing, terrifying.
But racial tension? None. I'm not suggesting that we were ultra-enlightened, that we were little angels of egalitarianism. Just that race didn't matter as much as other things. My Mom's second marriage broke up: That mattered.
My older brother, Kevin, who was in sixth grade at Duval and aspired to rock stardom, remembers the biggest news that year: "Black Sabbath came out with their first album." Also, marbles were huge. The sixth-graders spent all of recess trying to win marbles, one precision thumb-flick at a time. Cat's eyes were big. Baby blues. Kids were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the contents of their marble pouches.
I had a great homeroom teacher, Mr. Terrell. He'd been in the Army and knew how to maintain discipline. He was also young, hip and fun. You didn't see a lot of male teachers in those days. That he was black didn't seem as important as the fact that he played touch football with us every day for a solid hour after lunch. He played quarterback on both sides of the ball. (Trust me when I report that Terrell-to-Achenbach was the Montana-to-Rice of Duval Elementary.) Mr. Terrell seemed to believe in me; he would tell me that I could do anything I set my mind to -- a potent spell from a teacher's magic wand.
Another blessing: Mr. Cliett, the vice principal, who had been the first white administrator to arrive at Duval, several months earlier. He was full of experiments, like a chess tournament in which the students dressed up as knights and bishops and rooks and whatnot and marched around on a giant chessboard on the softball diamond. He also taught a special "enrichment" class for a select group of us with good grades. We began with logic, straight from a college textbook.
Bill Cliett is now retired and -- he told me when I called -- working on a book about James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake." Which seems like exactly the kind of thing Mr. Cliett should be doing.
"Things went very smoothly with the kids," he recalled. The teachers had some difficult adjustments. Many were called on a Sunday night and informed that they'd be working at a new school across town the next morning. Some had to teach subjects outside their expertise. Discipline could be tricky; some teachers were reluctant to paddle students of a different race.
Mr. Cliett told me something I'd forgotten: Every bus that first year had an adult along for the ride. To keep an eye on things and to ease parental nerves.
And we did have one incident, it turns out: On the last day of the year, older black kids from a junior high school threw rocks at the cars of some white parents. The cops came. The students were held in the classrooms until we got a police escort to the buses.
But for all the hysteria among adults, and the fulminations by racists, desegregation at Duval didn't prove traumatic for the students. It was, frankly, anticlimactic. Perhaps this is because children at that age have so much in common that race recedes into irrelevance.
Kind of like what you'd want for society writ large.
There were many things I didn't know then, or couldn't appreciate. Like the fact that Duval had been, for decades, a central element of the African American community. The principal, Mr. Jackson, lived in the neighborhood. Then, overnight, a school that was nearly 100 percent black turned something like 65 percent white. Kids who walked to Duval became minorities in their neighborhood school.
Meanwhile the "black" high school, Lincoln, had been closed, amid much protest and rage. Black students were dispersed to white schools amid flaring violence. The smooth transition at Duval wasn't the norm. And the court plan played favorites with elementary school kids: Only the older white kids, in fifth and sixth grade, were bused, but younger black children, in first through fourth grades, had to make the trek across town.
African Americans turned against busing, according to the Rev. Wright. When the schools began to segregate again, he said, "there was no real fight from the African American community."
Nationally, according to stastistics cited by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his dissent in the recent integration case, one in six black students go to schools that are 99 to 100 percent minority. Additionally, three in four black and Latino students go to schools where most students are minority. Whites go to schools that are, on average, 80 percent white.
It's easy to find fault with the ham-fisted ways that the government deals with race. Shaping social interactions by bureaucratic fiat rarely works. There's something absurd about labeling people "white/nonwhite" or "black/other," the binary choices employed by the school systems that recently ran afoul of the Supreme Court. But all the talk about creating a "race-blind" society seems naive, too. Race-blindness can be used as an excuse to ignore difficult racial issues. A way to turn away from troublesome things.
If my 46-year-old self had a frank discussion with my 9-year-old self, I'd probably have to apologize for all that we didn't get done in the past four decades. I'd tell him how we got a little lazy, selfish, cynical. How segregation is oddly persistent after all these years. How we remain, not only in America but around the world, a stubbornly tribal species.
And if the 9-year-old pressed me for a solution?
Um, let me get back to you on that, kid.
The era of forced busing now seems a period piece.
"It was a transition that had to be done, to get kids involved with each other, parents involved."
That's my old teacher Frank Terrell talking. I reached him on his cellphone in a pasture in Florida where he keeps a few cattle. I told him he'd made a big difference in my life. He said he remembered me and proved it with specific stories. He revealed a shocking fact: In 1970 he was only 23 years old.
When the schools were preparing to desegregate, he said, Mr. Jackson called him in to the principal's office.
"There will be no issues here at Duval," Mr. Jackson told Mr. Terrell.
And he got that right. Other schools had issues. We had touch football.
Mr. Terrell had a successful teaching career and wound up back at Duval before he retired, just in time to help the school go through a renaissance. Duval has a magnet program in the arts. Rated as a failing school in 2002, it has since been acclaimed for its turnaround.
"Black kids at Duval have some of the highest scores in the state of Florida," Mr. Terrell said. He said it had "nothing to do with black and white. If you've got committed parents, and you've got teachers who are on the ball -- that's how you do it."
Agreed. We need more good parents, more good teachers. More Mr. Clietts and Mr. Terrells.
Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer and blogs
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