During the 1960’s, the new interstate highways began to bypass the old US highways and the towns along them, and gradually these towns began to fade into obscurity. But a trip along the old highways can be extremely rewarding, revealing ghost towns and historic buildings. On last Friday, August 1, I decided to make my trip to Jackson along Highway 51 from Batesville, and found some interesting and intriguing places. The tiny town of Pope, Mississippi in Panola County, aside from residences, was mainly one street along the railroad with a couple of old historic buildings, one of which had been turned into a restaurant called The Place, that looks as if it might warrant further investigation. But I was especially impressed with the town of Enid, from which Enid Lake draws its name although the lake and the town are in different counties. The town, in Tallahatchie County, seems barely above ghost town status these days, but its only remaining downtown building is now a performance space known as the Enid Music Hall, which features live music on weekends, often blues. On the other side of the railroad tracks was a very old wooden church, which certainly appears to be historic, although there is no historic marker. A sign on the building is rusted, but I could still make out that the building had been the Bethany Baptist Church. A nearby building looks as if it had been a one-room school, or perhaps an education building for the church. Down the road just below the city of Oakland, Mississippi, I came upon a large, abandoned school complex along Highway 51. With no signage there, I had no way of knowing what school it was, but I never fail to see these abandoned schools in Mississippi and Louisiana without being depressed. After all, these are poor states with great educational needs, and to see these taxpayer-funded investments rotting away in the Mississippi sun is not a good look at all.
Does the formation of municipal schools in Shelby County violate Federal court orders pertaining to the rights of Black children to attend integrated schools? It certainly seems to, based on this quote from the Supreme Court’s holding in Cooper vs. Aaron (1958): In short, the constitutional rights of children not to be discriminated against in school admission on grounds of race or color declared by this Court in the Brown case can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted “ingeniously or ingenuously.” Smith v. Texas, 311 U. S. 128, 311 U. S. 132.
Now it is obvious that the formation of municipal school districts is not a DIRECT attempt at nullifying Brown vs. Board of Education. But it is the second phrase that is more concerning- “nor nullified INDIRECTLY by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted “ingeniously or ingenuously.” In other words, in the light of Cooper vs. Aaron, actions that would ordinarily be perfectly lawful and constitutional are not if they result in school segregation. And the courts in my opinion cannot merely look at how diverse the new municipal districts would be. By that standard, Millington, Bartlett and Germantown would likely pass constitutional muster, although I still am not sure how many of those communities’ current Black students actually reside in those towns. Arlington, Lakeland and Collierville will likely run into problems on the diversity issue within their own districts.
But courts in the past have also looked at the effect the new districts would have on the district that is being left behind, namely the Shelby County Schools. And nobody has denied that the net effect of the new districts will be to leave SCS almost entirely Black and Hispanic, which is a clear violation of those children’s rights under Brown vs. Board and related cases, including Northcross vs. Memphis Board of Education. The municipal district supporters claim their motives have nothing to do with race, and if that indeed is the case, they should be prepared to prove it in court, not only by agreeing to allow all students who currently attend suburban schools to continue to do so, but also by agreeing to allow a certain number of inner city Memphis children into the new districts. Both would greatly increase the likelihood of Federal court approval for the municipal districts. But I doubt that suburban residents will support either, particularly when a certain Arlington municipal booster is making threats to limit enrollment to Arlington residents only unless their district is given the school buildings for free.
Round 2 of the epic battle between the Bellevue Middle drumline and the Star Steppers drumline near the Fed Ex Forum after the Liberty Bowl Parade, 12/30/12. The battle ended when the parents got tired!
Round 1 of the battle between Bellevue Middle School drumline and the Star Steppers drumline in Memphis after the Liberty Bowl parade, 12/30/12
The Bellevue Middle School Majorettes and Drummers march onto Beale Street in the Liberty Bowl Parade in Memphis, 12/30/12
One of the few Liberty Bowl parade entries from Memphis was the Bellevue Middle School Majorettes and drummers, who posted up between the Fed Ex Forum and Church Park, warming up and marching.
The news that Carver High School in South Memphis and at least four other Memphis high schools are marked for closure by the so-called Unified School Board of the Shelby County Schools is just the latest indication of why Memphis should pull out of the “unified” schools and reconstitute their city school district instead.
The benefits that would accrue to having a single, county-wide school system were effectively lost as soon as a state law change made it possible for the suburban municipalities to form their own school districts. And although the county’s new school board has challenged the legality of the new municipal districts, they are fighting a losing battle. Money and white privilege always get their way in America, if not today, then tomorrow. And perhaps worst of all, those who objected to the unified district and support municipal schools for the suburbs were allowed to vote for the new “unified” school board and have representation on it. In other words, decisions about the education of largely Black children in Memphis are being made by white suburban board members whose own children will never enter a Shelby County School.
What is at stake here is far more than just schools. Along with churches, schools are the anchors of neighborhoods. They are the institutions that have helped shape communities like Orange Mound or Riverview for several generations, and it is basically impossible for suburban residents to understand the deep attachment that these areas have to their schools. Closing them will hasten the deterioration and decline of neighborhoods, and will also increase unrest in the schools that remain open, as children from schools with traditional rivalries are suddenly forced together into one building. Many jobs, both in teaching and support staff will be lost. Children will lose opportunities to play an instrument, sing in a choir, or participate in competitive athletics.
There is something that Memphis residents can do. They can demand that no schools be closed without the consent of the students and parents affected, and plan to organize a city-wide student boycott if the board goes ahead with the closings. But more to the point, Memphis residents need to ask Mayor Wharton and the city council to take steps to enable Memphis to withdraw from the Shelby County Schools. There is no point in pursuing “unification” with people who have made it plain that they wish to be separate. At least a municipal school district in Memphis would be under the control of a board elected by Memphis residents alone, and that is what is needed.
The Bellevue Middle School Majorettes and Drummers march down Park Avenue in the Southern Heritage Classic Parade in Orange Mound, Memphis TN, 9/8/12
McNeil High School was the school for Black students in Crawfordsville, Arkansas before integration, and later was part of the consolidated Crawfordsville High School, but Arkansas state law forced Crawfordsville to abolish its school district because of declining enrollment, and the school campus is now abandoned. A large tree has fallen on a portion of the building, perhaps during one of the many tornado outbreaks this spring.
The Memphis City School Board comes up with rather dumb ideas on a regular basis, so this new one shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But board member Kenneth Whalum outdid himself this time when he suggested that we build and open a high school to prepare young people for law enforcement. Apparently, it is apparent to Whalum that the only growth industry in Memphis’ future is crime, and therefore, to deal with the shortage of police and fire personnel (brought on in part by low pay and the city’s stupid residency rules), he proposes this law enforcement academy. Actually, the idea of trying to convince Black youth to join the ranks of law enforcement is nothing new, having been first proposed by Richard Nixon during his first term as president. That effort was a notable failure, as has been every effort since, for the simple fact that many Black youth have grown up in an environment where they see the world (rightly or wrongly) as a war between the police and Black people, and they have no interest in abandoning one side for the other. Perception becomes reality, and this attitude on the part of young Black Americans didn’t develop out of thin air, having received all too much credence from the behavior of SOME police officers. But my objection is more that, once again, we are accepting at face value the theory that Black youth cannot be expected to do academic work and prepare for a college career. Instead, we are told, we must lead them into some vocation, whether it be police work, or fire, or welding, or some other blue collar trade. None of these occupations is necessarily bad. All are needed and they pay well. The point is, we need to be giving Memphis’ inner city youth a general education to prepare them for whatever task they want to pursue in life, not a narrow education aimed at some specific field. Nothing is going to fix the Memphis City Schools short of adequate funding, encouraging integration, firing incompetent teachers, maintaining a safe school environment, and demanding accountability from both students and teachers. This has not been done in that district for years (if ever), and I see no signs that it’s about to start now. As for Memphis parents, let’s hope they send a clear message to the school board that they want no such experiments with their children as the guinea pigs.