Judge lifts Richmond County school desegregation order



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.”



1954: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” public schools were unconstitutional, opening doors for integration to begin. Fierce opposition led state leaders to stall and at times ignore the process. Before the 1959 gubernatorial election, Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver ran on the campaign slogan “No, not one,” meaning not one classroom would be integrated during his administration.

1964: Lead plaintiff Robert Acree files legal action against the Richmond County Board of Education with about 15 other black community members to force integration.

JULY 1964: The school board created a “freedom of choice” plan that opened the first through third grades to all students in the zones. Segregation effectively remained, with few families volunteering to change schools.

SEPTEMBER 1967: The Department of Health Education and Welfare declared the board’s freedom of choice plan was not sufficient.

1968: A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County defined areas of school operation that districts must change to reflect true desegregation in order to achieve “unitary status.” The ruling expedited change, and the percentage of Southern black students attending integrated schools jumped from 32 percent in 1969 to 79 percent in 1971.

JULY 1970: U.S. District Judge Alexander Lawrence called for a court-appointed biracial committee to assist the school board in selecting white and black schools to cluster for attendance.

JANUARY 1972: Ruffin filed an amendment asking for implementation of a busing plan.

JANUARY 1972: With more progress needed for the desegregation of white and black schools, Lawrence issued a desegregation order, laying out a plan for the clustering of schools and busing of students between white and black schools.

FEBRUARY 1972: The first phase of the order was carried out to cluster seven schools in two groups. A countywide boycott kept 59 percent of children out of school.

1970S-1980S: Changes in student housing and zoning continued.

1999: It was the last year any student was transported differently for the purpose of meeting 1972 desegregation order.

JUNE 17, 2013: U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. called a hearing to ask for evidence as to why the order should not be lifted.

JUNE 26, 2013: Bowen lifted the order and declared Richmond County unitary.



ROBERT ACREE: 17-year-old civil rights activist became lead plaintiff in the 1964 lawsuit filed against the school system.

JOHN H. RUFFIN JR.: Attorney who represented the plaintiffs. Ruffin served as lead attorney until 1986, when he was appointed to the Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court as its first black judge.

BENJAMIN ALLEN: Took over as attorney for plaintiffs from 1986 to present.

PETE FLETCHER: Represented the school board from 1972 to present. Fletcher’s predecessor, Franklin H. Pierce, represented the board when the lawsuit was filed in 1964 to 1972.

DUDLEY H. BOWEN JR.: U.S. District Court judge lifted the order and declared Richmond County unitary.

A copy of the federal judge's order lifting the Acree v RCBOE ruling