Atlanta Metro School Suit: A Search for Equality
By Marcia Cross-Briscoe
Vol. 1, No. 2, 1978, pp. 11-12
Atlanta may be “the city too busy to hate” but its process of desegregating its public school system reflects the trends of most communities in the South since the Brown decision in 1954. Between 1958 and 1973 five desegregation lawsuits were filed against school systems in metro Atlanta, and one is still pending in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Emma Armour v. Jack P. Nix has been referred to as the “Metro suit” because the city of Atlanta and six surrounding counties were first charged with segregation in public education. The Compromise Plan of 1973 which stemmed from an earlier case, Calhoun v. Cook, was supposed to solve this problem; however, the proposed remedies did not significantly integrate the public schools. Roughly 20 all-White schools were integrated but the remaining Black schools, which were in the majority, were left untouched by the plan.
Several national leaders of the NAACP spoke out against the compromise which was created by the Board of Education of Atlanta and the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP. They charged that it violated national NAACP policy by leaving Black students in segregated schools. However, the plan was approved and busing of some 5,000 students to White schools occurred.
The Metro suit was filed in June of 1972 by parents who felt that their children were not receiving an adequate education in the Atlanta public schools. Mrs. Ethel Mathews, a plaintiff in the suit, said, “What we are searching for is equality for our children and the Metro suit is the only way to get it.” The case was not presented before a judge until November 1977 because the court was awaiting the decision in a similiar case in Richmond, Va. During those 5 years some of the parents who had filed the suit moved from the city or had their children transferred to other schools within the area. Attorneys from the Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are representing the plaintiffs in the suit. They are seeking a metropolitan remedy whereby students would be transferred across city and county lines for the purpose of desegregating all the schools. A decision from the Court is likely by the end of 1978.
In the three days of hearings in November, the attorneys tried to prove that residential segregation exists in the metropolitan area and was deliberately created by actions of the State of Georgia operating through its governmental agencies. They presented evidence to support the fact that in 1924 the city of Atlanta created residential apartheid by enacting a zoning ordinance which designated the western corridor of Atlanta as a Black area. The North Avenue-Ponce de Leon “line” was also designated as a racial residential line, and the area north of this line was maintained for Whites only. Thus, schools remained segregated due to housing patterns created by government.
The plaintiffs further tried to establish the existence of a true metropolitan area. Their controversial, expert witness, Dr. Karl Taeuber, an urban sociologist, testified that “the Atlanta metropolitan area is an integrated social, economic and market area and the segregative actions of government in one portion of the area have and have had a segregative effect in all other portions of the area.”
The defendants testimony was heard in March at which time the attorneys for the various school systems tried to get their clients dismissed from the case. Of the original 11 defendants, only four remain. The court ruled that there was an “absence of significant interdistrict effects” to warrant the inclusion of Clayton, Cobb, Douglas, and Gwinnett counties, and the cities of Buford, Decatur and Marietta in the suit. Only the city of Atlanta, Fulton county, and DeKalb county, and the state of Georgia remain defendants in the case.
However, recent findings by David Armor, a witness for the defendants, support the plaintiffs rationale for a metropolitan remedy. In a report entitled “White Flight, Demographic Transition and the Future of School Desegregation,” he found that desegregation can cause accelerated White flight, particularly in larger school districts with substantial minority enrollment (20%) and in districts with accessible White suburbs. Armor showed that in Florida school districts where metropolitan desegregation plans are in effect, there is very little White flight to the suburbs as opposed to school districts where only inner-city desegregation is occuring.
Proposed remedies for desegregating the Atlanta area are a significant part of the case; however, they were not allowed to be introduced into the plaintiffs’ testimony. At present under the Compromise, a student can participate in a program called the Majority to Minority (M&M) Program. He may choose to transfer from a school where his race is in the majority to one where his race is in the minority. These voluntary transfers are not working as effectively as possible, however, because only Black students are choosing to go to schools where their race is in the minority, and they are being put on waiting lists to get into White schools that are supposed to accommodate them because of this program.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in Armour propose the creation of different types of schools which are ideally suited for an area such as Atlanta. Government management centers, health practice centers, design centers, linguistic skills centers, and an aviation center could all be implemented if a metropolitan remedy were ordered for Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County.
“This is not a busing case,” said Margie Hames, attorney for the plaintiffs. Alternatives to busing which could be implemented are expanded neighborhood schools, clustering schools, magnet schools, and the use of drop off schools by commuters from the suburbs.
The controlling law on metropolitan school desegregation is set forth in the Detroit, Wilmington, Del., and Louisville, Ky. cases. In the Wilmington case, Evans v. Buchanon, originally filed in 1957, the majority opinion of the court required inter-district busing. The details of their desegregation plan have not been completely worked out, but it will probably have a bearing on Atlanta’s plan should the court rule in favor of a metropolitan remedy.
Several factors make this suit controversial. For one thing, under the Compromise plan, a new organizational structure of the school system was created. Blacks were put into key administrative positions for the first time. According to Dr. Barbara Jackson of Atlanta University’s School of Education, a metropolitan desegregation plan might dilute the hard-won power of Blacks in the Atlanta school system. Whites would likely become the majority decision-makers in a cross-country plan.
The recent trend of White movement back into the city is another factor that influences the character of the case. Presently, Atlanta has a majority Black population and the public schools are predominately Black. However, many young White families are moving into the city and want to send their children to public schools, thus decreasing the press for a metropolitan remedy.
The issue of morality is a concern. Dr. Benjamin Mays, president of the Atlanta Board of Education, testified for the defendants that Atlanta schools have done the job outlined for them by the court in the Compromise plan of 1973. He calls the suit a “money-making scheme by lawyers.”
Whether the suit is a “money-making scheme” or not, it tries to address issues which were not solved by the Compromise of 1973. In this respect it is trying to promote change for the better and a future for education in the South which is based on innovations in learning rather than placement of bodies.
Marcia Cross-Briscoe is a recent graduate of Emory University, majoring in English and Black Studies. She resides in Atlanta.