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Cities: Atlanta

The Desegregation of Atlanta Schools

The plans for school desegregation during the 1960s did not adhere to any specific pattern. Cities and towns around the country found creative ways to resist the federally sanctioned integration of America’s schools. Atlanta proved no different. Racial tensions escalated when the Congress called for forced integration and African Americans carried on the struggle to dismantle Jim Crow laws. In Atlanta, new developments arose as community activists and school board members sought a compromise to address the educational disparity in the city’s public school system.

Few people outside of Atlanta are aware of the lengthy legal processes that unfolded. By April of 1965, the District Court in Atlanta ruled that the desegregation plans then in place had not sufficiently intergrated black and white school aged students in the city. After the ruling, the city adopted numerous efforts to increase diversity among pupils such as the creation of portable classrooms as temporary solutions to combating segregation. Adminstrators also implemented Freedom of choice to give parents more control of their children’s education. The Board of Education sought to increase the amount of integrated schools with these plans.

During the early months of 1970, Dr. Benjamin Mays was elected chairman of the Atlanta Board of Education. As the first black chairman, Dr. Mays sought to improve the quality of education in Atlanta and secure integrated schools for its students. 

As described in this WSB clip, the first proposed remedy to desegregation involved re-zoning public school districts. Although this measure strived to create racial balance in the schools, its inception proved much too difficult to accomplish. This proposition suggested that black students be bused into white schools, yet time and travel commitments discouraged students and parents alike from considering such options as viable means of change. While this option promised necessary changes to public schools, the rigors of organizing such opportunities were futile.

By March of 1970, the situation surrounding integration took an unexpected turn. Mandatory busing never seemed favorable to parents or local officials, but another option arose amidst discussions with school officials. School superintendent John Letson and Dr. Mays formed a committee to address U.S. District Judge Frank Hooper’s ruling requiring the school board to integrate its teachers. While many teachers were disappointed with the court’s ruling, over two thousand teachers were placed in a pool to await their destinies.

In opposition to the court’s ruling, Governor Lester Maddox urged students to boycott schools, while teachers were encouraged to refuse transfers. Despite the increased tensions surrounding teacher integration, the school board was left with no recourse but to force teacher integration. While this solution appears to increase efforts of desegregation, such methods placed limitations on racial equality. As teachers began to transfer in and out of all-black high schools, the battle for complete integration waged on.

Negotiations between the school board and black community leaders continued since both sides developed some opposition to mandatory busing. The school board implemented a new majority-to-minority plan for integration during the 1972-73 school year. A greater percentage of black students took advantage of the majority-to-minority program, as black parents sought better facilities for their children.

By 1973, these two groups reached an agreement whereby staff and administration would take priority in the implementation of integration plans through a limited amount of busing. Local leaders and school board officials failed to properly prepare students and parents for the battles that would erupt over public school desegregation. Still, the struggle to integrate Atlanta's schools waged on.

As the past efforts of desegregation linger today, we work to mend these errors and correct the disparities that exist in educational systems across the country. Although the events that unfolded in Atlanta only represent one city's response to desegregation, many of the issues that arose are indicative of the racist ideology that pervade the country. The need for integration essentially works to foster a sense of community, yet the strategic methods of placing different races together does little to question and dispel the ideas of racial and class animosity that persists. The fight for integration gained momentum in the 1970s. We are not too far removed from a time when segregation superseded the desire for equality. Today we have the wisdom of hindsight to reexamine history as we come full circle with new challenges that mimic obstacles of the past.

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Discussion Questions

1. Consider both the majority-to-minority program in Atlanta and the national A Better Chance program. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a minority student at a prep school? John Edgar Wideman was an African American man who grew up in inner-city Philadelphia and went to University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League college, on a basketball scholarship. He is an award-winning author of novels, essays and memoirs. What would have been the social costs for Wideman of attending this elite, historically white school?

2. Look at newspaper articles that discuss the desegregation of Atlanta's public schools. For what reasons did some parents oppose integration and others support it?

3. Examine your history textbook. Does it represent the diversity of the student population?

4. Discuss the ethnic and racial breakdown of the teachers at your school. Does it reflect the student population? Why or why not?

Take it to the Streets!

Research the history of your school and document specific instances related to integration such as the integration of the prom or homecoming court, the election of student government leaders, the selection of sports, cheerleader and drill teams, the hiring of coaches. What areas of your school were the first to integrate? Where does work still need to be done?

Writers: Brittany Blackburn, Laura Carver, Karrie Davis, Kellie Thiesen, Brooke Williams, and Acacia Wilson in Professor Barbara McCaskill's AFAM/ENGL 3230 (Survey of African American Literature), Spring 2007.

Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks and Professor Barbara McCaskill                                                              

Web Site Designer: William Weems  

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