The Impact of Desegregation on Society: Are Values Changing?
By Ray Gavins
Vol. 2, No. 5, 1980, pp. 5-9
Selfishness is the most constant of human motives.Patriotism, humanity, or the love of God may lead to sporadic outbursts which sweep away the heaped up wrongs of centuries; but they languish at times,while the love of self works on ceaselessly, unwearingly, burrowing always at the very roots of life, and heaping up fresh wrongs for other centuries to sweep away.
Thus wrote Charles Waddell Chesnutt in 1901 as he pondered racial repression in his native North Carolina. It was a central theme in The Marrow of Tradition, a novel he wrote about the Wilmington Riot of 1898 and the killing of at least 20 Negroes. Chesnutt, formerly principal of Howard School in Fayetteville, today Fayetteville State University, visited Wilmington to study the causes of the violence. He discovered that the city fathers, arch-Negrophobes in every way, were especially culpable. Although Marrow received low marks from White reviewers, who objected to Chesnutt’s militant tone, it dramatized the tragic consequence of unopposed prejudice.
Chesnutt’s jeremiad prompts us to put the topic of desegregation and values into perspective. While the South and nation have weathered the storms of Brown, the Civil Rights Act, and HEW’s recent suits to integrate public higher education, noncompliance has been and continues to be apparent. Brown provoked massive resistance. Tensions after the Civil Rights Act culminated in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. HEW’s current strategy, which includes withholding federal funds, is stirring much anger and judicial delay. Seventy-eight years later, aided by social science and statutory change, we can rationalize inaction better than Chesnutt and his generation, yet we are unable to avoid dire consequences.
Objectivity and balance are hard to achieve when discussing assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs. As cultural ingredients they make up the core values, informing and influencing what people are willing to fight for or against. Great variance is possible. The White Citizens’ Councils of the 1950s campaigned for the preservation of segregation, while the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the early 1960s demonstrated against Jim Crow, disfranchisement, and economic oppression. Given counterpointing values, and the chronic powerlessness of Blacks, it is not altogether surprising that progress has been slow. In fact, when the historian looks at the record, he or she is confronted by the adage: the more things change, the more they seem the same.
The task before us is urgent. Values, pro and con, conflicts, subtle and overt, and dilemmas, individual and collective, contribute to current uncertainty about desegregation. At the heart of the problem is a long and undemocratic tradition of inequality; it is institutionalized and seemingly impenetrable. Conservatives, who claim a truly egalitarian society is impossible, argue that poverty is permanent and Blacks are hopelessly inferior. Eschewing equality of opportunity or how the system could assure it, they provide instead an elaborate rationale for what amounts to a policy copout. To be certain, there is a need for opposing views that are humanistic and directed toward the ends of social justice.
American history should
yield some answers. Of course, it is far easier to marshal historical facts than it is to say what the facts mean – in human terms. Occasionally, too, reckoning with the past is frustrating and embarrassing. Still, because honest inquiry can illumine our present and thereby shape our future, we must make a conscious effort, barring none, to say where and why matters went wrong, even if we do not agree. If exhortation or preaching is the net result, rather than effective implementation of educational equality, that in itself does not justify giving up the task. If we do give up, the losses – in human terms – will be staggering.
Contradictions in race relations, antecedents of today’s ambivalences, are rooted in experience. For at least 244 years White Americans viewed Afro-Americans as a strange, subhuman species of property, fit for perpetual enslavement or, if not enslaved, forced into a mudsill status. Considered ineducable, Blacks worked rather than learned because there was no place for them in society except the bottom. Slavery governed every aspect of White-Black contact, even circumscribing that small percentage of the Black population believed to be free. Paralleling the peculiar institution was the development of political democracy for White males. Not only were women and Blacks excluded; there were dangerous divisions between rich and poor, North and South. The paradox of bondage and freedom survived the American Revolution of 1776, but it exploded in 1861, bringing emancipation and reconstruction to over four million Blacks. Society, nonetheless, rejected them.
Segregation and labor exploitation supplanted slavery. Whatever happened to Blacks by constitutional decree (for awhile voting, officeholding, and state supported schools) occurred in the framework of sanctioned separation. Blacks’ efforts to break out of their closed world usually meant further proscription, as in the case of Chesnutt’s Wilmington mob massacre. A half century elapsed before the day-to-day insurgence of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s bore fruit in Brown. Even then, violent resistance ensued. Negroes had not been accepted. No meaningful school integration would be forthcoming for 15 years.
An idea whose time had come did not flourish; America possessed insufficient moral and spiritual courage. Interracial tolerance, understanding, and acceptance, each indispensable to peaceful transition, lagged behind law. Emotional distance created more fear, suspicion, and mistrust. The cry for Black power triggered White backlash, muting counsels of moderation on both sides of the color line. Gunnar Myrdal had contended earlier that Whites harbored conflicting feelings about race, and events proved him correct. Whites believed in freedom and equal opportunity yet rationalized prejudice and discrimination against Negroes. The situation leads to an unfortunate separation of ideals from realities, thought Myrdal, permitting Americans to pass laws to alter practices they were supporting at the deepest psychological level. The Kerner Commission Report took this reasoning a step farther. America, it concluded, “is moving toward two societies, one Black, one White – separate and unequal.”
The history lesson here is simple: essentially autonomous communities, much less their segregated educational institutions, cannot be merged properly without reorienting values. Our dilemma is how to apply the lesson. Writing nearly a quarter century after the first Reconstruction, Chesnutt understood that the Negro’s future depended upon ending White prejudice and violence. “Our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer,” he stated, ‘which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.” A novelist with an undisguised Black perspective, he scorned selfishness, the handmaiden of tribalism and racism. If “the most constant of human motives” were attacked, society could usher in a day of decency, morality, and goodwill.
That day is not at hand a quarter century after Brown, the Second Reconstruction. Mechanisms are now desperately needed to promote social justice. Society is not simply biracial like Chesnutt depicted it in 1901; it is multiracial and multiethnic. Desegregation is an area of Black-White relations as well as a process for bringing numerous disaffected groups into the mainstream, including Blacks, women, workers, poor people, and nonWhite minorities. Their interdependence is conceded, since inequality in America relates to race, sex, and class. Notwithstanding new formulations of the problem, we ought to look beyond statutory law (as Chestnutt did) and deal with human horizons.
The impact of desegregation on society is salutary. It challenges Americans to square creed and practice, to take affirmative action, and to foster meaningful human relationships. Unhappily, value changes have lagged behind legal changes, throwing a monkey wrench into enforcement.
Are values changing? When so much seems the same, I wonder. The anti-busing movement, White flight, and racial indifference on college campuses are national phenomena, for instance. Each is connected to a resolve either to hold the line of advance or, where possible, to turn back the clock. If education is to continue its role as a major instrument for desegregating society, we cannot ignore the values lag.
To shed some light on what we can do, I shall stress three categories: advantages of integrated education, human rights issues in learning, and community outreach.
Integrated education is equal education. It enhances cultural sharing and interracial communication, props to equal opportunity. Chief Justice Earl Warren, recognizing its value to the nation’s civic health, declared in 1954:
…it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
Segregated education deprived children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, Warren maintained, and did them psychological harm:
To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” the jurist submitted. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Brown protected a legal right and established a social principle. With the noise being made about quality education and reverse discrimination today (euphemisms for neighborhood schools and limiting Black admissions) we sometimes forget. The NAACP won Donald Murray’s right to attend the University of Maryland Law School way back in 1935, almost two decades before the big decision. While the Association, even then, mobilized its resources against the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy, the overriding purpose was to liberate America and the Negro from the tentacles of segregation. The integrated school shaped the vision of an integrated society.
Credit for sustaining the vision belongs not only to the NAACP, the lawyers and plaintiffs, but to an older generation whose unheralded sacrifices kept the ball rolling. Next was the student vanguard. Believing in the cause, Black pupils of Little Rock (thanks to
the presence of Federal troops) braved hostile White crowds. Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes witnessed rioting at the University of Georgia, as did James Meredith at Ole Miss. Vivian Malone encountered the governor, who blocked the doorway to the University of Alabama. These events were prologue to boycotts, sit-ins, and mass marches. What started in education had spread to transportation, public accommodations, voting, and employment.
Between the 1960s and now the ferment has subsided. Skepticism reigns – in Black and White. “I hear much talk that integration is impracticable, that as an ultimate goal it is an ideal like equality, but that as a practical program it is unfeasible,” observes historian C. Vann Woodward in Racism and American Education: A Dialogue and Agenda for Action. “1 know that this isn’t a universal attitude, but I hear more of it, and I am concerned.” All of us should be concerned.
We should support the view that integrated education is advantageous to society, partly because it vindicates those who have struggled for it, but more importantly because it buttresses cultural pluralism. Appreciating our racial and ethnic diversity broadens intergroup tolerance, respect, and understanding. People who differ from us in color, language or religion, therefore, need not be outcasts. They are entitled, like everybody, to first-class citizenship. Were these humanistic considerations integral to American education elementary, secondary and higher; public, parochial and private our schools would not only serve the ends of competition but of cooperation as well. There still may be time, through cooperation, to transform vision into reality.
Human rights issues, imaginatively incorporated into learning, can help. Freedom, equality, self-determination, dissent, reform and interracial cooperation, taught as positive concepts, could make classrooms crucibles of social change. Humanities and social sciences, disciplines which treat man’s interaction with his fellowman beckon us. To do the job (no matter what the purists claim) it is not necessary to turn lecterns into soapboxes, only that we raise new and critical questions about historical experience. Hopefully, the queries will redirect our thinking concerning the contemporary world.
The finest synthesis of these perspectives I know is Mississippi: Conflict and Change, a state history text written by James W. Loewen, Charles Sallis, and others. The authors, an interracial group of five men and three women, working as a teacher-student research team from Tougaloo and Millsaps colleges, represent the fields of sociology, history, political science, and literature. At the time of publication in 1974, three of the authors, including Loewen and Sallis, resided in the Magnolia State. Their study “traces the history of Mississippi: from prehistoric times until today, covering all areas of social life and concentrating on recent developments, especially the civil rights struggle and the search for social justice.”
The book seeks and sustains
rapport with the students, using simple but thought-provoking language. Maps, figures, tables, photographs, short biographies, marginal definitions or comments, conceptual questions, and annotated bibliographies appear throughout. The searchlight is on people and what happened to them. After a Chamble of Commerce style introduction, which is fun, readers receive a primer on misconceptions about history, emphasizing ideology and myth. They then see the layout of the land, Indian civilizations from pre-history through European exploration, settlement, control, removal, and the Trail of Tears.
They view the internal tensions of a frontier state, unsettled by slaves, free Blacks, Northern abolitionists, secession, and Civil War. From here on, readers witness failure and triumph; democracy comes slowly. Negro political participation is blackjacked with violent and racist campaigns. Populism is similarly defeated. Jim Crow is unopposed, though cotton tenancy collapses and brings on the depression.
Like Black spirituals, blues and folklore, White minstrelsy and country music often reflect the hard times. William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams write about the hard times. Growing Black aspirations, catalyzed by World War II, inaugurate statewide civil rights operations. Citizens’ Councils organize chapters in 110 towns after Brown, but Uncle Sam Freedom Summer, and SNCC at least see token desegregation. Emerging from tragedy and conflict, Mississippi moves forward. While every problem is not solved, industrialization improves employment, income, literacy, and cultural life. According to the final chapter, the future promises greater urbanization in-migration, and equality.
However, Mississippi children do not use the book because the department of instruction, wary of its content and viewpoint, rejected it. The frustrated authors lost their suit for adoption in state court, but they have appealed and the matter still awaits a decision in Federal Circuit Court. Needless to say, an unfavorable ruling will weaken human rights emphases in learning. Also it would wipe out similar textbook projects elsewhere in the South. The case challenges scholars, teachers, parents, and students. If human rights are not taught, they cannot be practiced.
Community outreach is the watchword for change, linking gown and town, educators and activists. A forum for those who care about integrated education and human rights issues, it facilitates dialogue and action. Principled pronouncements are not ends in themselves, they need backing – people, publicity, and political clout. Chesnutt, mind you, continued his fight against prejudice through the Negro press and the Cleveland, Ohio NAACP. Today, too, it is very important that we concretize our concern.
Cooperative efforts can contribute significantly to communities. The Institute on Desegregation, based at North Carolina Central University, involves interested Blacks and Whites from triangle-area colleges and universities. A valuable clearinghouse, it deals with the most pressing problem in Carolina higher education. Through its inter-institutional research group, studies are conducted which influence affirmative action. The Center for the Study of Civil Rights and Race Relations, housed at Duke University, utilizes oral and multiracial sources to write recent Southern history. By bringing to the campus retired organizers like Ella Baker and Virginia Durr and selecting as visiting fellows noted activists like Vincent Harding and Sue Thrasher, it merges university and community in a unique setting. Its nontraditional approaches to the past and present have consciousness-raising value. The North Carolina Humanities Committee, with headquarters in Greensboro, funds projects in community change. The speaker-consultant program, for instance, encourages organizations to draw upon the observations of academic humanists in formulating strategy for reform. Enterprises such as these suggest that we have ample opportunity for immediate outreach.
It is true that in scope the problems are national, regional and statewide, but it is on the local level where change is nullified or nurtured. What do we know of past and present race relations? Can we form community coalitions? Does desegregation lower academic standards? How do we get more Black faculty members in predominantly White universities? These and related questions impel us to seize the horns of our values dilemma. If we can circumvent the ways in which the dilemma immobilizes us and the structures through which we work, we can attack “the most common of human motives.” Then perhaps we can avoid the consequences which Chesnutt found in Wilmington.
An associate professor of history at Duke University, Ray Gavins is a member of the Southern Regional Council. This article is from a paper which he delivered to the National Conference on Desegregation in Higher Education, July 19, 1979, Raleigh, North Carolina.