Both sides agree school desegregation lawsuit should end

Judge Bowen: 'School system's work ... nothing short of exemplary'

 

On the 49th anniversary of the filing of the Richmond County school desegregation lawsuit, the difference between the school system’s response and attitude in 1964 and Monday couldn’t have been more different.

U.S. District Court Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. set Monday’s hearing to hear any evidence why Acree v. Richmond County Board of Education shouldn’t be closed.

The original lawsuit was filed because eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional and therefore illegal, Richmond County schools were still segregated. They continued to be for several more years as local school officials dragged their heels and attempted to ignore the federal judges’ rulings.

On Monday, however, the plaintiff’s attorney, Ben Allen, also said the case was ready for closure.

Bowen called three school board members to ask whether there was any way that leaving the lawsuit open would assist or hamper the board in its efforts to provide equal educational opportunities to every student. None thought the lawsuit and the accompanying federal court oversight would make any difference.

“I don’t think so, sir,” board President Venus Cain told the judge. The board would not tolerate any racial segregation in any form, she said.

The desegregation of the schools wasn’t just aimed at equalizing the percentage of black and white students at each school. The goal was to make the educational opportunity equal for all – including access to updated and new facilities, safe transportation, school equipment and materials, clubs, classes and athletics.

School board attorney Pete Fletcher presented witnesses to talk about those factors and the representation of black educators at every level of the schools’ staff.

The judge asked Fletcher why the school board hadn’t authorized him earlier to seek closure of the lawsuit.

Some members fear what might happen if the federal oversight stops, and there are still trust issues in the community, he said.

Superintendent Frank Roberson said Monday that he expected a favorable ruling from Bowen for the order to be lifted.

With the demographic and cultural changes that have gone on during the past 50 years, Roberson said it was time for the school system to move on without the order and continue the progress already made.

“I don’t see a need for the order,” Roberson said. “The community would have to shift drastically for the system to go back to the previous state.”

Bowen said he wasn’t making a decision Monday, but he shared what he was thinking. Although the lawsuit was filed in 1964, it wasn’t until January 1973 that progress actually began, he said. The school system was clearly unconstitutional then, Bowen said.

“I, like some of you, attended segregated schools and I know the difference,” Bowen said.

The sole question he needs to address is whether the school system is a unitary school system, Bowen said.

The school system’s work to reach that goal, to end segregation, is nothing short of exemplary, Bowen said.

The judge said he would rule soon, and he gave attorneys until Friday to file any additional arguments.

Staff Writer Tracey McManus contributed to this article.

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