The Long Shadow of the Bus Wars

Two experiences define most white southerners’ feelings about the Federal government, Sherman’s March and forced busing.

On our Texas trip this summer I took the kids to see my old high school.  When I turned off the ignition my oldest whipped his head around and asked, “Are we getting out of the car?”  The younger one couldn’t wait to go see the “Crown Vic’s” lined up on the other side of the barbed-wire-topped fence that surrounds the campus.  We took a picture and moved on.

My educational career spanned much of the length of America’s busing saga.  That 27-mile daily round-trip was dictated by a Federal Judge who felt like he was doing the right thing.  His reasons?  Beaumont, like most southern communities, had a dark history of racial discrimination in education.  In the years after the Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 outlawing racial discrimination in schools very little happened.

In 1962 the Reverend Edward Brown filed suit against BISD when his son was denied enrollment at Fletcher Elementary School near his house because of his race.  What happened in response is extremely important to understanding modern white attitudes toward the Federal government.

Progress, But Not Enough

Beaumont was not Little Rock.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of southern communities were not like Little Rock or New Orleans.  Beaumont, which was certainly no beacon of left-wing progressive thinking, simply dropped racial criteria for admission and announced a plan to begin deliberate school integration a grade at a time.

This is prior to either of the Federal Civil Rights Acts.  Most southern whites, especially in Texas, wanted no part of the tragic displays of racial hatred they saw playing out in Dixie.  No doubt, their personal attitudes about race might embarrass us now, but still most were much closer to Atticus Finch than Bull Connor.  Many of those communities would encounter a complex obstacle as they sought to disentangle themselves from the legacy of Jim Crow.

Neighborhood public schools are a hallowed American tradition.  There is a special strength that comes from multiple generations of involvement in a core set of educational institutions.  Schools where many of the teachers and administrators were once students and where mom once wandered the halls not only add richness to an education they create bonds that reinforce a sense of community.

The trouble with a neighborhood school when you are looking to break down discrimination is, well, the neighborhood.  Creating ‘open enrollment’ allowed people to attend the school of their choice, but both black and white families tended to choose a school in their own neighborhood.  Most southern neighborhoods in the ’60’s were explicitly segregated.  Beaumont was no exception.

Beaumont started out by trying to redraw school boundary lines, but the effort accomplished little in either direction.  Whites re-zoned into traditionally black schools either chose different schools or moved.  Black families also remained mostly attached to their neighborhood schools.  By the late ’60’s the Federal government was taking a far more activist approach to the issue and local options were drying up.

In 1974 the 5th Circuit rejected BISD’s efforts at voluntary desegregation.  Not enough black students were attending the two traditionally white high schools (which were 24% & 14% black, respectively) and no white students were attending the district’s traditionally black school.

For the next twenty years Beaumont schools would operate under the supervision of a Federal Judge.  Neighborhood schooling and the system of public education in general would be deeply, perhaps irrevocably, damaged.

We’re Here to Help You

Those decades of heavy-handed social engineering all over the country would make Republicans out of Democrats, drain cities of white families with school-aged children, and create the suburb as we know it today.  They would also fail utterly in their goal, with schools in many places ending up far more segregated than they were when the effort began.

Middle and working class whites’ children became pawns in this game.  They were shipped all over their respective towns to provide a moving racial shield for wealthier white neighborhoods.  In response they became more politically activated than ever before and would shift their traditional party loyalties.  They learned a deeply emotional lesson about the power of government and the willingness of well-intentioned bureaucrats to screw them over without pity.

They also developed a sense that the Constitution no longer protected them from government interference in the way they had always expected it should.

But perhaps the most tragic casualty of this process was its most ironic.  The busing saga devastated black communities.

Collateral Damage

Beaumont’s Charlton Pollard High had a rich history and deep community roots.  What should be a proud tribute to what African Americans were able to achieve against a backdrop of discrimination, abuse and outright violence is now lost.  I have to confess that I don’t even know where the campus was.   The name no longer hangs over a school door, a sad legacy of a failed judicial experiment.

The school that would become Charlton Pollard was founded in the 1870’s by freed slaves who recognized the need for schools to serve the black community.  With no government help and against tremendous resistance, they built an institution to provide a critical service.  Administration of the school was picked up by the city in 1883 and two formal wooden school buildings were completed in 1900. In 1925 the first brick building was constructed.

Charlton Pollard, underfunded, neglected and poorly served by the white-dominated school board that controlled it remained an anchor in Beaumont’s black community.   When the Federal courts took control of the schools in 1975, its destruction began.

Under pressure from the Justice Department, BISD merged Charlton Pollard with the venerable old Beaumont High, mostly white at the time.  Beaumont Charlton-Pollard, or BCP, as I knew it, began its short career in ’75 as a liberal political experiment.  District officials began looking for whites they could ship to the new forcibly-balanced schools.  They needed people with the weakest political sway and the least ability to pay for private alternatives.

They found us.

Unravelling

A strategy was carefully constructed to protect the few elite schools still available; the ones distant enough from majority-black areas to be insulated from integration.  The strategy mostly failed, but it took a long time.

By 1981, with whites already fleeing the city en masse the process reached the peak of absurdity.  Beaumont’s other more affluent school district, South Park, was forced to make individual students’ school assignments by drawing colored ping pong balls in a lottery.  South Park’s lone black school board member, Richard Price, summed up the white-flight problem with the observation, “We don’t have any black flight.  Blacks can’t fly.”

The crux of the problem was a skipped step.  The traditionally black schools had long been underfunded and poorly maintained.  Black communities worked hard to make up the gaps on their own, but those schools were markedly deficient.

The desegration process skipped the step of bringing them up to speed and instead just attempted to move the students around and deal with the other problems as they went.

Whites in Beaumont with any means steadily fled, either into the one small, but now booming Catholic school, or into the galaxy of small storefront institutions thrown up hastily by Fundamentalist churches (where the Earth is 6000 years old…).

We waited eagerly each summer for judges to decide which new part of town we would be exploring when school started.  My sisters and I all attended different combinations of schools through our careers.

In 1986, Beaumont Charlton Pollard would lose the last vestige of its freedmen’s heritage as the whole campaign began its final phase.  The name was dropped altogether as some of the city’s least successful schools were amalgamated into a new entity on the campus of the old Beaumont High.

Beaumont would shrink for a time to two high schools, West Brook, tucked away on the farthest reaches of the city’s suburban west-end where it could have the best chance of staying white, and the suitably industrial-sounding Central High.  Charlton Pollard was finished, buried beneath Central.

The Aftermath

The busing effort is dead now.  It was finally abandoned in the ’90’s. Charlton Pollard still holds reunions, though fewer and fewer in the community remember its rich history.

Central High School, my proud alma mater and distant heir to the Charlton Pollard legacy, is now about 3% white.  West Brook High, engineered as a shelter for white-collar west-end professionals, remains mostly white.

Meanwhile, the neighboring town of Vidor, with its long, overt, legacy of KKK control, was untouched by the whole process.  It’s schools are still whiter than the milk on your cereal.

We now have a whole generation of southerners who received their education, such as it was, in an atmosphere of complete racial and academic turmoil.  The network of neighborhood support that sustained the schools was demolished in both black and white neighborhoods leaving them weaker and less effective.

Though the quality of the students’ educations undoubtedly varied, we know they learned one certain lesson.  You better not come between a liberal and his dream for your improvement.  We shouldn’t be surprised at the politics this has inspired.

School desegregation was a noble idea and an all-around good thing.  It still is.  But once the Federal authorities had accomplished the task of eliminating racial barriers to school enrollment there were some tough decisions to make.  They had for the most part reached the extent of their Constitutional and moral authority.  It was a moment that called for cool heads, patience, and restraint.

The campaign could have shifted to a vital new front.  There was grueling political work needed to ensure that the schools which had been opened up by the new rules, but were still largely segregated by tradition, functioned fairly. They needed to respect diversity and enjoy equitable funding and solid administration.

In other words, we could have tackled the persistent problems that left traditionally black schools behind while respecting those communities and their history.  That would have been hard work, but within Constitutional and ethical bounds.

Instead, Federal authorities driven by liberal politics and frustrated by those hard-headed, ignorant “racists” sought to force the issue to an immediate resolution.  They destroyed local schools and shipped kids all over the place in what amounted to a mass kidnapping, trying to build a photo-op of the dream in their minds’ eye.

They used an interpretation of Federal power inspired by high ideals but out of touch with our traditions of personal liberty to create a disaster that still haunts us all.  Consistent with what seems to be an iron rule of American politics, black communities got the worst of it in the end.  Charlton Pollard was merged and molded and relocated until it ceased to exist; its accomplishments and meaning now largely forgotten.  It is a lost legacy that cannot be replaced.

This failure has echoes for our time.  There are simple solutions available for problems like universal access to health care, terrorism, and illegal immigration, but many of those solutions would trample on principles of Constitutional government  that serve us well in the long run.  It is imperative for citizens in a Constitutional government to recognize that some solutions can be worse than the problem. Patience, reason, and restraint must have their place.

Our still-segregated and badly damaged schools have lessons to teach us yet.

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