County is still working to meet orders of 1964

Despite a recent ruling that lifted a desegregation order on Bibb County schools, there isn't any timeline for it to happen in Augusta.

Progress has been made, but there are issues of trust still unresolved, said Ben Allen, the attorney who has represented the plaintiffs in Akree v. the Richmond County Board of Education.

"It's easier to build buildings than to build trust," Mr. Allen said, noting that the school system's construction program is helping erase a disparity in facilities, a key issue in the desegregation case.

"We still have problems of trust in the community - blacks being suspicious of whites and whites being suspicious of blacks."

A federal court last week lifted a desegregation order on Macon and Bibb County schools, which has renewed attention on the one in effect on Richmond County schools.

The school board authorized its attorney, Pete Fletcher, to work with Mr. Allen in meeting the six standards set forth by the courts, but has yet to let him go further.

"It is unfinished business, and it would be best for the community to come together," Mr. Fletcher said, citing a "lack of trust" in the community as the holdup, as well.

In 1972, at the age of 25, he began working on the case for the school board. Since then, he has been working to meet the six standards.

Four of those, pupil assignment, transportation, faculty and extracurricular activities, he believes have been met. The two in question are the facilities and classified employees.

Both sides are addressing the racial makeup of the workers and are striving to ensure the group reflects the racial makeup of the community.

The problem is that no one really knows what that is, Mr. Fletcher said.

The facilities are nearing parity through two phases of sales tax-funded construction projects and are moving into a third phase.

Mr. Allen said the court order isn't meant to last forever and it might be time to discuss bringing the issue to a close.

"I think we're closer than we ever have been," he said. "Just from the age of the lawsuit, it should be resolved."

But talk of resolving the case tends to bring up the trust issues again, Mr. Allen said.

Most of the named plaintiffs in the case are dead.

School board Vice President Joe Scott, as other board members, said he isn't aware of the status of the desegregation case. It might be time for the board to be briefed on the desegregation order, he said.

Little has been heard of the desegregation case in recent years because the buzzword has been "cooperation," Mr. Allen said.

Though cooperation might be occurring within the county, it might take both Richmond and Columbia counties' cooperation for a truly desegregated school system, said Charles Jackson, an Augusta State University education professor who has researched and spoken on the issue of desegregation.

In the decades since the federal courts issued the order, the demographics of Richmond County have shifted such that many schools are predominately black as families move to Columbia County.

The school system is now 72 percent black, the former superintendent is black, and half of the school board is black.

Segregation under the law has given way to segregation by circumstance, namely social class, Dr. Jackson said.

"While there are no laws, the effects are the same," he said.

For schools to be racially balanced, it would take busing pupils from Richmond County to Columbia County and vice versa, Dr. Jackson said.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

BACKGROUND: In 1964, the federal courts first issued the desegregation order in Richmond County.

DEVELOPMENT: Richmond County's school construction program is improving facilities and providing more equality with regard to the quality of buildings.

WHAT'S NEXT: It will take both sides of the case, as well as the federal court, to agree, with the support of evidence, that all six standards have been met in order to lift the desegregation order.