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On June 28, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that officially ended the era of school desegregation that followed Brown v. Board of Education. Five of the nine justices declared that race alone could no longer be used to assign students to a school, undermining the biggest civil rights cases of the previous century. Under the new interpretation of the law, school districts that had labored for half a century to integrate under plans once forced on them by the courts were told those plans were now unconstitutional.
Two cases led to the decision, one out of Seattle and another out of Louisville, Kentucky, the most racially integrated school system in America. The Louisville case had a long history. Ten years earlier, parents had gone to court to fight desegregation in order to save one school, Central High.
The parents were angry about busing, the main tool used in Louisville’s plan. Their children were being forced into the worst schools in the city when one of the best, located in their neighborhood, was being threatened with closure. They were frustrated that their children’s educational fates were decided solely on their race, with little attention to what parents and the community wanted for their kids. They believed the school system was violating their constitutional right to equal protection. They didn’t care that their case might jeopardize a central cause of the civil rights movement, school desegregation; a few of the plaintiffs hoped that desegregation would be dismantled because of their efforts. Although they were not the first to bring a federal case challenging desegregation, they were the first African Americans to do so.
In Divided We Fail, Sarah Garland reports on how the fight over desegregation, from the Jim Crow era through busing and into the present, changed the lives of black families in Louisville, Kentucky. Desegregation was correlated with the most rapid reduction of the achievement gap between black and white students on record. Seldom told however, is the story of how traditionally black schools closed, thousands of black teachers lost their jobs, and busing policies favored white families. Today, as many states do away with their desegregation programs and embrace new ideas for how to improve the quality of education for minority students, many of the same mistakes are being repeated.
In the end, the dissatisfaction with the way desegregation was implemented—among both whites and blacks—toppled it. In the case of black parents, they wanted more from their schools than just test score gains. The story of Central High School in Louisville, and why black community members valued it so much that they helped overturn a half-century of school desegregation, is not just a history lesson. It’s also a message to education reformers today.