Friday, August 6, 2010

We've Come A Long Way; We've Got a Long Way to Go

On August 28, from 2pm -4pm, at Southern Methodist University in the Hughes-Trigg Theater, I'll join KERA-TV host Lee Cullum, historian, author and Professor Emeritus of Communications, Darwin Payne, President and CEO of North Texas of the Super Bowl XLV host committee, Bill Lively in a panel discussion in connection with the Dallas Morning News' celebration of their 125 anniversary. Ours will be a discussion of Dallas' history over the past 125 years.

In preparation for the afternoon, I'm reading some of books on Dallas' history and talking to some local historians. One of the books I'm re-examining is "Civic Culture and Urban Change: Governing Dallas", by Royce Hanson. I knew Dr. Hanson when he was with the University of Texas at Dallas several years ago and bought his book shortly after he wrote it. Going over it again, I saw something that caught my eye.

In the chapter dealing with Dallas Independent School District, Hanson discusses how Dallas' aversion to activist government, its culture of business management in civic affairs and the autonomy of the school district distinct from city government, actually ended up with the very constraints it sought to avoid being imposed upon it when the Supreme Court handed down it's Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.

The intransigence of Superintendent W.T. White, federal judge William T. Atwell (both of whom have schools named for them), and later, federal judge T. Whitfield Davidson, in opposing the high court's ruling led to a decades long struggle before Dallas came into 'compliance'. In fact, by 1961, Dallas still hadn't complied and it was apparent that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was not going to tolerate the lethargic pace at which the local court was deciding the Supreme Court actually had Dallas in mind when it called for the desegregation of public schools.

The Dallas business leaders didn't want the type of federal intervention seen a few years earlier in Little Rock, Arkansas, so a task force of seven white business leaders and seven leaders from the black community reached an accommodation of the desegregation of schools (a strategy that called for the desegregation of a grade a year until desegregation was complete).

To sell this to the white community, the business community had a documentary produced called 'Dallas at the Crossroads'. Now, I'd heard of this documentary before, but I'd never seen it.
But we live in an age of technology and information access, so here it is...

Walter Cronkite, 'the most trusted man in America' narrates. The emphasis: peace, order, the image of Dallas, the rule of law, the health, the inevitability of change and the safety of children. Interesting omissions: the word 'morality' is mentioned once. 'Desegregation' is mentioned once. African-Americans (blacks, Negroes) are never mentioned. Indeed they are never seen in the documentary.

The film was shown to over 1000 white organizations in an effort to market the idea that non-compliance with the Supreme Court order, threatened the peaceful order of Dallas society. That it was 'good for business' to go along with desegregation.

On September 6, 1961, seven years after the Brown decision, 18 black children entered the first grade in previously all white elementary schools. There were no incidents of the violence feared.

In some ways, the efforts of this bi-racial committee are to be appreciated. They did indeed avoid the violence and public spectacle that attended desegregation elsewhere. One does have to remember the times. And one does have to remember that a climate of racially motivated violence existed. Unsolved bombings of homes in black neighborhoods were not unusual. Though no violence was associated with the desegregation of schools on this day. That climate was so virulent it ultimately resulted in the assassination of John F. Kennedy two years later.

Yet, there are some eerily familiar strains of contemporary issues to be heard when watching this documentary. Calls for 'states rights', the assertion that local law can preempt federal law. The scene of ugly, angry mobs, used to contrast the calm and discipline that city fathers wanted to characterize Dallas, are disturbingly familiar.

And the fact that today, that there are those of us who feel the need to make economic arguments to produce changes that are essentially moral principles is disappointing.

But these things are unfortunate reminders that, as far as we've come, we are probably not as far along as we'd like to believe.

As Hansen states, the federal courts remained school masters of DISD for the next 40 years, through seven district superintendents, finally achieving 'unitary status' (desegregated) in 1994. Forty years after Brown v. Board and after the district's student population was majority African-American. It wasn't until 2004 that the district was no longer under federal court supervision.

1 comment:

Karen said...

"Calls for 'states rights', the assertion that local law can preempt federal law. The scene of ugly, angry mobs, used to contrast the calm and discipline that city fathers wanted to characterize Dallas, are disturbingly familiar."

This reminds me of the current struggle for Permanent Supportive Housing in Dallas. When I attended the meeting at Methodist Hospital re: moving formerly homeless individuals into Cliff Manor, I told a friend afterward that the tone and rhetoric reminded me greatly of the Civil Rights era, during which time I was a college student.

I have asked myself since, did the homeowners who behaved so poorly at that meeting think they could pre-empt federal fair-housing law? Apparently so, and thank Heaven they were wrong.