December 8, 2006

School Desegregation Cases Inspire Student Activism

By Hazel Trice Edney

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Two Supreme Court cases jeopardizing the principles of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation in elementary and secondary public schools are set to be heard next week, drawing students from around the country who have organized protests to stake out the court during the Dec. 4 hearings.

“Now, more than ever, we have got to be rebuilding a new civil rights movement,” says Shanta Driver, a lawyer who serves as national co-chair of BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), the Michigan-based group that led a march and rally of 50,000 outside the Supreme Court during the University of Michigan cases that resulted in the reaffirmation of affirmative action in higher education.

BAMN also fought against the recent attack on affirmative action in Michigan, led by conservative Ward Connerly. But Connerly’s Proposal 2 survived the Nov. 7 referendum.

“We lost affirmative action in Michigan. And what is clear is that if we are going to have any impact on being able to defeat this onslaught of racist attacks by the Right wing now, it’s got to be the mobilization of a new civil rights movement. And that is only going to happen if young people are the foot soldiers and the generals of such a movement. So, this is just another step in that process of building this new movement to assure we have a chance of winning,” Driver says.

The two cases are Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education (Kentucky).

“In a sense, what’s at stake here is a fairly narrow set of situations where voluntary integration efforts are still being made in public schools,’’ says Ted Shaw, director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“In another sense though, the impact of this is potentially enormous because what our adversaries are trying to do is stop all attempts to address school desegregation on a voluntary basis. And that’s part of a broader attempt to stop all voluntary efforts to do anything about racial inequality.”

Shaw says although the Supreme Court doesn’t necessarily consider public protests, the student demonstrations could have an immeasurable impact on public sentiment and education on the case.

“When people demonstrate how passionately they feel about this issue, that’s a positive thing,” says Shaw.

“I think that the country pays attention to what people demonstrate for and what they care about. So, when there are marches and thousands and thousands of people and even more gathered, it certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Driver says she has no clear estimate on how many youth will show up.

“Howard [University] students are coming. We know that there are 16 universities from North Carolina… There are five different schools in Michigan. They’re coming from Purdue. There are students from Atlanta coming. There are a hundred students from California coming, Black and Latino high school and college students. We’ve booked 10 different high school buses from Detroit. We’re getting e-mails every day. We’re hoping for a significant turnout. This is going to be a real significant event.”

According to a story published in “The Hilltop,” Howard University’s student newspaper, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Howard University Student Association, the Howard Chapter of the NAACP, Alpha Chapter, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and the University Graduate Student Association held an organizing meeting with students early this month.

The mobilization stirs memories of three years ago when more than 2,000 Howard students marched to the Supreme Court for the two University of Michigan cases, camping outside the court all night in order to take turns going inside.

“Today our main goal is to get as many people here as possible. But really, we are helping the event on December 4,’’ Sable Nelson, president of the Howard chapter of the NAACP, is quoted in the Hilltop article.

“We have three committees that we’re heading up, policies and regulations, doing community outreach, as well as doing political action so that people are informed.’’

Legal experts say the two cases, are just as important as the University Michigan decisions, rulings in which the justices upheld the university’s law school affirmative program, but struck down a more numbers-oriented undergraduate admissions process.

Tension over the new cases by civil rights leaders is especially high because swing voter Sandra Day O’Conner has retired from the court. Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, new appointee Samuel Alito and new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. are the court’s most ardent conservatives.

David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Justice John Paul Stephens are considered liberals, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy possibly emerging as the court’s new swing voter.

The cases before the court were upheld as constitutional by federal appeals courts. The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in the Jefferson County, Kentucky case and the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the Seattle case, ruled that the programs did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, meaning that race may be considered as a factor in the placement of students. An adverse ruling by the reconstituted Supreme Court, however, could have the affect of overturning the desegregation mandates set forth in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

“Concerned about how these trends were affecting their own children and community, locally-elected school boards in Louisville and Seattle adopted student assignment measures to foster integrated, diverse schools,” says a statement issued by the LDF.

“In doing so, they joined hundreds of other communities around the country that have also taken steps to see that children from different backgrounds learn to live, play, and solve problems together. When the Court rules on these cases this Term, it has an opportunity either to give these communities the ability to preserve some measure of racial integration in public schools, or to end the era of Brown.”

Both the Louisville and Seattle lawsuits were filed by parents of White students who complained that their children weren’t allowed to attend the schools of their choice.

Jefferson County’s school-assignment program ensures that each school’s enrollment is between 15 percent and 50 percent African-American. The aim of the Louisville plan is to diversify a school district that is 58 percent White and 36 percent African-American.

In Seattle, Kathleen Brose claims her daughter, Elisabeth, was separated from her friends in 2000 when she was denied her choice of a high school because she is White. In Jefferson County, the district used what they called a “tiebreaker” system by using race to determine where a student should be assigned.

Shaw says the cases are as important to Brown as the University of Michigan cases were to affirmative action.

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