When Did The MCS & Shelby County Schools Brouhaha Start?

Memphis, TN – In a debate about merging Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, Memphis School Board Member Tomeka Hart and Shelby County School Board Chairman David Pickler argued about when the brouhaha started.

Hart said it started 10 years ago, when the county schools first pursued a special district dispensation from the state. Pickler said it started 20 years ago when the Memphis City Schools Board first voted on giving up their charter.

Daniel Kiel says we have to look further back. Kiel says the current status quo--two separate school systems--the one in the city, almost 90 percent black and economically disadvantaged, the other, in the county, almost 40 percent black and economically disadvantaged, "Is, at least partially, a result of the desegregation experience here. And you hear echoes of the desegregation debates in the debates about merging the school districts," Kiel said.

Kiel is a graduate of Memphis City Schools and Harvard Law School and currently teaches at the University of Memphis. He wrote a paper called "Exploded Dream: Desegregation In the Memphis City Schools." As the title suggests, that paper starts with a poem by Langston Hughes. Kiel says in our current heated predicament, "We can look back at the history and learn what went wrong that led to the, sort of, next 30 years of divided schooling that resulted in the city schools achievement levels getting to the, you know, the low level that they are now."

The Memphis City Schools charter, for example, "The charter that we have today, that lays out the responsibilities of the board, how the board is elected, how the schools will be governed--all that is what is known as the fourth city school charter, and that's in 1890. That is the charter that is currently the one that they are talking about surrendering," Kiel said.

And that charter mandated segregated schools. So, fast forward 64 years, and we get to the first major problem with the Memphis City Schools' charter. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided a case called Brown v. The Board of Education; and that decision declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

But segregation persists, and persists. In 1966, 12 years after the Brown decision, there are about 130,000 students in Memphis City Schools. And there are 1,695 black students (less than 3 percent of the total students) attending 20 formerly all white schools. There are no white children attending black schools.

"It was really denial that anything was going to change as a result of Brown v. The Board of Education. That was the initial reaction," Kiel said.

Now, so far, this is a Memphis story because it happened here, but it is also a story of a lot of places across the South, and the nation.

"The part of it that makes it unique to Memphis, I think, is the size of our African-American community which makes the situation a little more explosive," Kiel said.

At this point--remember we're in the late 1960s--the Memphis City Schools are pretty much half white, half black. That makes Memphis very different from the more infamous integration stories--for example, Little Rock, Arkansas, where the National Guard was called in to integrate schools.

"So, Little Rock has this huge explosion," Kiel said. "But the demographics in Little Rock are such that the African-American community is much smaller, and so the--for lack of a better word--"threat" of integration, though real, and, obviously, triggering this huge, national crisis, is not as significant as it is in Memphis."

Of course, as everyone knows, we do have our big blow-up in Memphis. It just doesn't happen in the schools. In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

"All of a sudden we are not just a national symbol of racial strife, we are an international symbol of racial strife," Kiel said.

And at the same time, the Supreme Court is getting impatient. The Court is not looking just at Memphis. They're looking all across the South and they're seeing city after city flouting the Brown decision by stifling all but token integration.

So, in 1970, 16 years after Brown, the Supreme Court begins handing out a slew of decisions. These decisions essentially say, "The time for delay is over," Kiel summarizes. "You must come up with a plan that promises to work, and promises to work today."

The capstone of these new decisions is Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Decided in 1971.

"The Swann case puts busing on the table," Kiel said.

Kiel says this is a sad moment in the Brown history. First, because it shows that the 16 years since the Brown decision have accomplished next to nothing, and second because it takes the focus off of education.

"Busing is a very hard to justify tool if you are talking about educational quality. Sending students on 45 minute bus rides daily--twice daily, perhaps. There is no educational value in that," Kiel said.

Kiel says if you read the Brown decision it had all sorts of language about the importance of education, and a quality education. Swann doesn't.

For the first time," Kiel said, "We are looking--not at the quality of schools--but we are looking at the racial make-up of schools, and so busing can only be justified as a tool for improving the racial make-up of schools, the racial balance in schools."

Of course, busing in Memphis didn't really achieve its goal (improving the racial balance of schools) either. In 1970--the year before the Supreme Court mandated busing, almost 90 percent of Memphis' black students were in schools that were more than 90 percent black. Today 85 percent of Memphis students are black. Of the 201 Memphis city schools with a State Department of Education public report card in 2009, 27 are 100 percent black. 110 are 90 percent--or more--black. And 40 are more than 63 percent black, making them blacker than the city as a whole.

What seems to have changed significantly in Memphis, as a result of busing, is not the number of black kids attending majority black schools, but the number of white kids attending Memphis City Schools at all. Remember, before busing began about half of Memphis City Schools students were white.

Just before busing began in Memphis 20,000 white students--about a third of all the white students--left. And the white hemorrhage didn't stop there.

"You see enrollment in county schools go up significantly," Kiel said, "and you see a birth of a great number of private schools in the Memphis community."

More white flight than anyone imagined possible. In 1990 the white to black ratio in Memphis private schools was 13.6 white students for every one black student.

It seems to me that desegregation hasn't really desegregated Memphis City Schools, but Kiel has a more nuanced view.

"It depends on your definition of desegregation," Kiel said. "If your definition of desegregation is simply lifting a racial restriction, there exists no racial restriction on who can attend what schools in the city of Memphis. If your definition of desegregation is something more affirmative, something like--'schools whose racial dynamics reflect the community at large, or are close to, in some way, the community at large'--then the answer is no, we don't have desegregated schools for most Memphians."

Kiel says he sees a lot of things coming out of a possible merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. But racially integrated classes aren't one of them.

"I think that the experience with this city with busing was so negative, I don't think it is in anybody's appetite to put that on the table." Kiel said.

And, in a way, he says, that's kind of nice.

"Because now we can stop focusing on who is sitting next to who in the classroom and start focusing on educational quality," Kiel said.