Decades after a former Richmond County superintendent said segregation must be maintained “at any cost,” a federal judge on Wednesday freed the school system from a 1972 desegregation order that forced integration and led to the racial equality in classrooms today.
U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. wrote the district is in “unitary status” for successfully correcting past ills and achieving desegregation in the student, teacher and staff populations; and facilities, activities and transportation.
Attorney Ben Allen, who in 1986 began representing the plaintiffs who brought the original case against the school system in 1964, said a world of progress has been made over the years and he is comfortable in moving forward without the order.
“It’s a good day for the Augusta education community,” Allen said. “I have to agree that the community has come together with one priority in mind: to provide a quality education for all its students.”
The case originated in 1964, when a group of activists led by 17-year-old Robert Acree sued the school system for blatantly ignoring the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, declaring separate schools for blacks and whites was unconstitutional. Real progress was not made until 1972, when then-U.S. District Judge Alexander A. Lawrence issued a desegregation order that specified a plan for clustering schools and busing white and black children to learn together.
Acree, 66, said Wednesday that he was saddened to hear of the closing of the order, not because he believed it was possible for the schools to resegregate but because the order served as an oversight to ensure history did not repeat itself.
After Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that killed a component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and made it so states no longer need federal approval to change voting procedures, Acree said he doesn’t want society to regress.
“I’m very, very sad that this happened,” said Acree, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C. “My prayers are with my hometown.”
Of the 109 Georgia school districts that came under desegregation orders decades ago, 75 remain under court order either because they have not met requirements or have not sought relief, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the Georgia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
To have orders lifted, districts must show they have met six standards established from a landmark 1968 Green v. County School Board of New Kent County. The “Green Factors” specified schools must show desegregation in student, faculty and staff assignments; and transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities.
Before the case, districts across the South dragged their feet with “freedom of choice plans” that opened schools to all races but effectively maintained segregation without assisting in the transition.
In his ruling, Bowen pointed to evidence and testimony given during a June 17 hearing, where both Allen and board attorney Pete Fletcher said there was no need to continue the order. Bowen wrote the demographics of the system have flipped since the filing of the lawsuit, with black students now making up 75 percent of the district and whites accounting for 21 percent.
Each school is assigned an attendance zone based on a corresponding neighborhood planning unit that is not based on race.
In cases of race disproportion such as Glenn Hills High School, where 93 percent of students are black, Bowen said it is clear the shift can be attributed to changes in demographics rather than the effects of past segregation.
Today the district has a nondiscriminatory hiring system that relies on qualifications rather than race and has led to majority black administrators, teachers and staff.
Bowen went on to say buses assigned to neighborhoods are based solely on the size of the zone and needs of the campuses without any regard to the race of students or reputation of school. Further, with $450 million allocated to construction projects across the entire district since the late 1990s, improvements have been made to all schools regardless of the race of its students.
Fletcher said little will change in the daily functioning of the school system now that the order has been lifted. The only real effect will be seen in the magnet schools, which can no longer select students based on race.
The county’s three magnet schools, which were established after the 1972 order to attract white students to inner city schools, were required to maintain a racial balance while admitting students in the application process. Now students must be admitted based only on academics and the application or audition portion, Fletcher said.
With a chapter closed in the history of Richmond County and undeniable progress made, Acree said it is still important not to forget where the city came from to have achieved so much.
He recognizes the changes in Augusta’s classrooms and the hearts of its people.
“I am very, very proud of where Augusta has come from,” Acree said. “I know many things have happened in Augusta in the last 50 years. I just hope they don’t change now.”