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50th Anniversary of Second 'Brown v. Bd. of Education'

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

About 30,000 people have visited the Brown v. Board historic site in Topeka, Kansas, since it opened a year ago. That's a 13-room brick elementary school where nine-year-old Linda Brown was forced to attend because she was black. In 1955, a year after the Supreme Court struck down segregation, in the case bearing her name, the court told school districts nationwide to draw plans for integration. But today, many classrooms look pretty much as they did in Linda Brown's time, separate and unequal. It's a problem nationwide, but especially in Southern states like Alabama. From Birmingham, Tanya Ott reports.

(Soundbite of classroom activity)

Unidentified Woman: That's a person right there.

TANYA OTT reporting:

It's Wednesday morning at Birmingham's Central Park Elementary and the third-graders are learning about descriptive writing.

Unidentified Woman: The more descriptions you add in there, the more those people can understand what really happened.

OTT: The kids work dutifully on their stories, sharing them anxiously with their classmates.

Unidentified Girl: Veteran's Day. Veteran's Day was fun.

OTT: The teacher has written a list of descriptive words on the chalkboard. All around the room, brightly colored educational posters encourage kids to study, to eat well, to follow the rules. But look closer and the room shows its age. The tiles on the floor are cracked and there aren't any computers, except the teacher's. There's one other thing you'll notice: Every student is black, every single one. No white students, no Asians, no Latinos. Fifty years after Brown II, many urban schools, like Central Park Elementary, are again segregated. US Congressman Artur Davis remembers giving a Martin Luther King Day speech at a local high school.

Representative ARTUR DAVIS (Democrat, Alabama): Well, I got to the point in the speech where I was beginning to talk about King's belief in integration and his belief in one community, and it occurred to me as I was saying that, that in this public school in a racially mixed city, there's not a single white student in the auditorium.

Mr. MICHAEL FRONING (Dean, University of Alabama): The segregation that we see now is different.

OTT: Michael Froning has been a classroom teacher for more than three decades. He's currently dean at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Education.

Mr. FRONING: In the old days, African-American students could not go to schools that were predominantly white by the law. Now those same schools are still segregated, but they're segregated more by our choices of where we live, whom we want to live with.

OTT: And that's a tougher nut to crack, observers say, because you can't legislate where people can live. In the 1970s, Birmingham's white residents started moving en masse to the suburbs. Very quickly, those school districts started outpacing Birmingham on standardized test scores and graduation rates. Ronald Jackson took notice and started a group called Citizens for Better Schools, which has watched in frustration as Birmingham city schools have resegregated. In 1984, the district achieved unitary status, meaning it had satisfied the court order to desegregate. But today, the student population of Birmingham city schools is 95 percent African-American and, says Ronald Jackson, there's another troubling trend.

Mr. RONALD JACKSON (Citizens for Better Schools): You have black middle-class flight from Birmingham city schools, so we have this double-barrel effect that we believe is the vestige of Jim Crow segregation in our schools.

OTT: As more black professionals leave the urban core in search of better schools for their own kids, the city's tax base goes down and there's less money for public education. It's a vicious cycle, says Lawrence Pijeaux, director of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and it's not going to change until whites and upwardly mobile blacks recognize it's a problem for everyone, not just the nation's urban core.

Mr. LAWRENCE PIJEAUX (Director, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute): For youngsters who find themselves in school districts that may have limited resources, you reduce the probability of those young people reaching their full potential. Then we find ourselves years later supporting those young people.

OTT: Again, Congressman Artur Davis.

Rep. DAVIS: As the schools have become resegregated, you're seeing a greater funding gap than ever between predominantly black systems and predominantly white systems. And you're increasingly seeing a lack of willingness on the part of the white community to vote for tax increases that they fear would affect schools that don't serve their children.

OTT: Congressman Davis says he hears a lot from his constituents about wanting quality schools but surprisingly little about wanting more integrated education. It begs the question: Fifty years post Brown vs. Board, is full integration still a worthy and desirable goal? Or are separate but equal schools OK? Horace Huntley teaches African-American history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Mr. HORACE HUNTLEY (University of Alabama at Birmingham): We have internalized this whole concept that black children, in order to learn, they must sit next to white children. Let's not tell me that my child cannot learn if he's not sitting next to a child of another race.

OTT: Ronald Jackson of Citizens for Better Schools agrees that, academically, black and white kids do just fine separated, but socially and culturally, he says, there's merit to integration. Jackson predicts a growing movement against resegregation with non-violent protests and perhaps even litigation.

Mr. JACKSON: We must remind the federal judiciary that they have a solemn obligation to enforce the edicts of Brown vs. Board of Education. And where they have sat over the last 25 years and not mandated that these local school districts, that is, comply with the law, then they are in dereliction of their oaths.

Rep. DAVIS: There's no law that Congress or the Alabama Legislature could pass tomorrow that could integrate schools single-handedly.

OTT: Again, Congressman Artur Davis.

Rep. DAVIS: I suppose you could get a set of courts that 20 years from now or 10 years from now might say that `We're going to bus people and move people around to achieve integration.' But if you haven't built a political foundation for integration, those courts would be ignored or people would find some way around their commands.

OTT: Ultimately, the success of desegregation lies in the hearts of people and the ability of politicians and activists to convince them they have a stake in the fortunes of people who aren't like them economically or racially. For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tanya Ott