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Education Law Prof Blog: How a Southern City Achieved Our Nation's Greatest School Integration Success and Then Struggled to Save It

Pamela Grundy’s new book, Color and Character: West Charlotte High and the American Struggle over Educational Equality, offers a detailed and personal look into our nation’s most significant integration triumph and its subsequent disintegration.  “From the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was the most desegregated major school system in the nation.”  The story of that triumph is inspiring and a testament to what is possible when communities and public institutions come together in pursuit of an important mission.  She tells this story beautifully.  One is left wondering why places like Atlanta, Dallas, Cleveland, and so many others did not share similar success. 

At least one important factor is that Charlotte had Julius Chambers—a hometown civil rights advocate who would go onto to be a national leader for decades.  But Julius was just Julius back then.  He took bold stances and demands in the courts.  Julius did not demand that Charlotte just tinker with dismantling segregation; he demanded that it immediately create what one might call perfect integration.  His vision was so bold that it shocked both whites and blacks.  Ironically, the district court bought it.

But Julius was just one attorney.  Real world success depended on the people who would teach and learn in Charlotte’s schools.  For that story, Pamela Grundy turns to West Charlotte High—the “undisputed flagship” of Charlotte’s success.  Much of that story comes through the first-hand accounts and quotes of students and teachers.  The opportunity to hear them speak, rather than a scholar characterize them, grounds the book.  In today’s world of distant school statistics and profiles, this stylistic choice is refreshing.  Students and teachers tell the reader what West Charlotte High was really about, how it made them feel, and what it made possible for their community, their school, and students of all races. Those students built relationships and communities that gave them meaning. 

Charlotte was such a deep-felt success that when President Reagan came to town and criticized forced busing,  the city rebuked him.  The Charlotte Observer wrote “You Were Wrong, Mr. President” and the yearbook students at West Charlotte wrote: “They said it wouldn’t work.  They said it isn’t working.  Busing opponents, however, need only take a quick survey of West Charlotte High Schools to see that busing has worked.”  They emphasized that student came from across the city to participate in a common project.  They “didn’t just make the best of an ‘experiment’ but took advantage of the situation . . . academically, athletically and socially.”

One wishes the story could end there or simply march on as inevitable history.  Instead, the second half of the book is a story of loss—one that reveals just how fragile integration and equality can be.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the desegregation plan would be lifted in Charlotte.  Its schools would resegregate. They would become separate and unequal.  And officials would embark on a number of deals with the devil—deals that would try to make educational opportunity equal in the context of racial and socio-economic segregation.  In effect, they would concede to segregation.  West Charlotte would fall from its position of “flagship” and struggle to retain teachers, students, and academic achievement. 

The second half of the story reveals the interesting dynamics of local, regional, and national change, which quite frankly, I haven’t spent too much time considering as of late.  Everything today seems national today: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Every Student Succeeds Act and school choice. 

The early years of desegregation demonstrated the ability of one community to lead the charge of change when very little else would have suggested it was possible.  In other words, politics and change are local.  Yet, the second half of the book shows national politics overwhelming Charlotte.  Charlotte made plenty of mistakes and maybe had lost its integration spunk, but so much of Charlotte’s loss was not entirely of its own doing.  Charlotte, like every other community, was besieged by the negative social and cultural effects of national phenomena like No Child Left Behind, individualism, and school choice.  And the Great Recession hit Charlotte as hard as any city.  These outside stimuli made resegregation and inequality all the more likely. 

Charlotte could, of course, have resisted.  Louisville, Kentucky, did.  But Louisville, Kentucky, had grown far more conscious about integration and had a different local context.  The one lesson Grundy seems to want us to take away is that equality is a continual struggle, never fully won or lost, at least not yet.  And she still offers us hope for Charlotte, but I will leave that to your own reading of the book.

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Derek W. Black

Derek Black is one of the nation’s foremost experts in education law and policy.  He focuses on educational equality, school funding, the constitutional...