EDUCATION: The Issue of Desegregation

By Diane Johnston

Vol. 1, No. 7, 1979, pp. 25

During a lively discussion on education at SRC's recent Annual Meeting, panelist Jean Fairfax, director of education programs for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, remarked, "There is a lot more to the Brown case than school desegregation. It got us off the back of the bus into Colony Square."

Fairfax's comment characterizes the main issues addressed at the session, which began with Assistant Attorney General Drew 5. Days III outlining the complexities of the desegregation issues as he sees them from the Justice Department.

Days pointed out that desegregation goes beyond simply joining Black and White children in the classroom, and includes fair employment practices so that the faculty, as well as the student body, is integrated. Desegregation also covers discrimination by sex, and against the handicapped. He explained that too little has been done by the Justice Department and HEW in terms of coordinating their activities. As a result, Days said, there are currently about 250 discrimination cases pending, many without attorneys.

Director of the Southeast public education program for the American Friends Service Committee, Winifred Green, spoke next of the unfinished business of the last three decades. "The breakthroughs of 1964 and '65 were clear-cut," she said, "but today, equity is more complex," She pointed out that migrants, bilingual students, the handicapped, school drop-outs and female students must be considered when dealing with educational equity.

Green warned against unfair but subtle practices that can keep disadvantaged students back. She cited the practice of "sidetracking" children who are labelled "not ready" for the first grade. These children are often lumped into a special class and kept from advancement in regular grades.

Attacking political and educational leaders who set policy, Green said there is too much educational rhetoric and not enough action. She further criticized lethargic law enforcement agencies. She called individuals and groups like the Southern Regional Council to investigate problems and to demand continued action.

"Don't turn your backs on these issues," Green cautioned, "just because they are hard to understand, less visible than they were in the sixties, or because they're hard to work with. We must all work for changes."

Jean Fairfax concluded the formal presentation by addressing the issues of higher education. "Initially," she began, "it was a major victory to achieve individual access for highly motivated Black students into higher education. Today, that is inadequate. Now we have to work on including Blacks as a group into the whole system."

Fairfax showed the successes and failures of desegregation in higher education. For example, the numbers of full-time Black undergraduates in post-secondary education are increasing, as are the percentages of Blacks enrolled in predominantly White institutions. Also up are the numbers of 20-34-year-old Blacks enrolled as fulltime students.

Fairfax emphasized, however, that these gains may be unstable. She cited a decrease in Black enrollments in Virginia, questioning the possible ill effects of the minimum competency exams offered there. She also found discouraging figures in the distribution of Black students in the total school system. In some states, she pointed out, nearly half of the Black students enroll in only 2-year institutions and community colleges. The numbers of Blacks at so-called "flagship" institutions (large state universities, such as the University of Georgia at Athens), are not substantially increased. "We have to eliminate the disparities," she said.

Fairfax questioned the adequacy of remedial programs, financial aid, and the effects of attitudes towards minorities. She also expressed concern over disproportionately low enrollment and graduation of minorities in certain key fields such as engineering, the sciences (including medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine), and law.

Fairfax argued, too, that universities and colleges, just as any large corporations, should be required to honor equal opportunity and fair employment laws. Black faculty members are not being hired at flagship institutions nor the smaller community colleges. For example, she said, except for a junior college in Atlanta, there are no Black presidents at predominantly White institutions in the South.

According to the NAACP leader, there is a need for a new perspective on an old problem: the role of the traditional Black institution in integration. Currently, HEW guidelines are supposed to encourage and enhance these schools with financial support; HEW certainly advises against closing or downgrading them. Fairfax, however, points out that in order to maintain and/or upgrade Black colleges, money has to be taken from funds designated for the mostlyWhite flagship institutions. She is concerned that we cannot have both since HEW appears unwilling to go that far.

During a question-and-answer period, the panelists entertained inquiries from the audience. Professor Bell Wiley of Emory University who moderated concluded the session.

Diane Johnston, a senior at Emory, recently completed an internship in the publications department at Southern Regional Council.