School integration enters its 50th year

Milestone revives old memories and worries for Wake's future

STAFF WRITERSSeptember 6, 2010 

On Sept. 9, 1960, June Campbell walks to Murphey School with her son, Bill, the first black student to integrate the Raleigh schools. These days, he is concerned that the gains of the civil rights era are being rolled back.

1960 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler, born in 1941, grew up in Raleigh during the civil rights era. Parents Lloyd and Phyllis Tyler were activists who helped pioneering African-American families such as the Holts in their efforts to get their children into white public schools.

    In an e-mail from her home in Baltimore, Tyler talked about what it was like to be a young person in Raleigh in the midst of historic change and how she feels about trends in school diversity today.

    "Because I was still a teenager in those days, I was woefully lacking in any broad sense of the political atmosphere or social dynamic. Of course I was proud of my parents for their courage in taking the stance they did, but I don't think I fully understood at the time the more-than-human courage that was required of people like the Holt family. I can only imagine what anguish must have gone into their decision to step forward like that.

    "As far as being part of an historic change: there used to be a sign over the second waiting room in the Raleigh bus station that read COLORED. One day I came home after being away a long time and I saw that the letters had been removed. I thought, "Oh, my goodness! It really did work!" That was the first time I'd fully realized the implications. But then I noticed that the wall itself had been permanently stained, so that it still said, in a whisper, "Colored." And I'm sorry to say that I think that fairly well sums up how far we've come.

    "On the other hand, when I hear people say that we've come nowhere at all, I always notice that they're under a certain age. They really have no idea how bad things were once upon a time.

    "I haven't been back to Raleigh in so long that I can't comment on the resegregation of the schools, but it is apparent here in Baltimore. I feel a sense of despair about that. But then I remind myself that if change was possible one time, it is most certainly possible again."

— The iconic photograph brings it all back: the day a small boy with a backpack broke Raleigh's public schools color line, a half a century ago this week.

Shown on the sidewalk in front of Murphey School on Sept. 9, 1960, Bill Campbell, 7, the child of civil rights activists, was about to become the first black student to attend a white Raleigh city school.

After that historic start, the integration of public schools in Raleigh slowed to a deliberate amble before gaining momentum through the introduction of busing in the 1970s and the merger of city and Wake County schools in 1976.

As the anniversary approaches, Campbell himself and other civil rights figures say the current Wake County school board's rapid-fire rejection of a longstanding socioeconomic diversity policy means the system will forfeit ground gained during a decades-long fight for equitable treatment.

"I am disappointed that - with so many seemingly having endured so much for so long to get to what was a terrific school system in Raleigh - it would be dismantled without any consideration of the long-term detrimental effects," he said last week from his home in Florida.

Not so, says school board Chairman Ron Margiotta, giving the new board credit for fulfilling the dreams of those who wanted integrated schools to give children a better education. Margiotta says the prior diversity-based assignment plan - using families' income levels to vary school populations - was failing. He cites test scores for low-income and minority students and data showing those children weren't getting placed in advanced middle-school math classes.

Fifty years later, Margiotta said, people should stop talking about diversity and focus on academics. He is leading the board majority's push to develop a new student assignment plan based on dividing Wake County into neighborhood school zones.

"What we're trying to do is build on the past 50 years," Margiotta said. "We're focusing on the education of all students. The low-income children have been deprived of a good education."

Campbell, 57, went on to become mayor of Atlanta, then spent two years in prison and a halfway house after a conviction on federal tax charges in 2006. A jury found him not guilty of racketeering and bribery charges.

Making frequent visits to Raleigh and keeping up with local issues via the media, Campbell has been dismayed by what he and others see as a retreat from the hard-fought gains of the 1960s. He calls the dismantling of Wake County's diversity policy "old wine in new bottles," or a repackaging of the same sentiment that closed white schoolhouse doors to black children for decades.

"It was a difficult time not only for my family, but also for North Carolina and the nation," Campbell said. "We were out picketing, protesting virtually every day, we would march up and down Fayetteville Street, past the Sir Walter Hotel.

"But the integration of the schools was thought to be the most important. It was deemed essential."

Resistance in Raleigh

By the week Bill Campbell started at Murphey, Raleigh had been at war with itself for years on the issue of civil rights for blacks. An almost entirely white city power structure had fought an earlier attempt at integrating white schools, by the family of Joseph Holt, whose appeal the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear in 1959.

Bill Campbell remained the only African-American student at Murphey for five years, enduring physical and verbal abuse from other students throughout, he said.

The Holts lived in the historically black Oberlin community, and the Campbells lived less than a mile from Murphey on East Edenton Street. Both pioneering families feared for their lives as they lived through violent threats and harassment in an increasingly tense era.

In April 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken at Memorial Auditorium and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had formed at Shaw University. Raleigh police arrested civil rights protesters by the score on downtown streets.

"We are in an era in which a prison term for a freedom struggle is a badge of honor," King told an audience of students at Memorial Auditorium on April 15, 1960.

Federal law, many African-Americans and a growing contingent of white liberals had said public schools must integrate following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

"From the school board and the community, at least the white community, the struggle then was to do everything possible to keep integration from happening," said Cyrus King, 87, a retired N.C. State professor and veteran of the civil rights movement.

Years after Campbell was admitted to Murphey, black families had to apply to the school board whenever they wanted a black student to enter a white school. When the board agreed to admit students, their names and addresses appeared in both daily newspapers.

The slowly integrating system went on to adopt plans based on choice and neighborhood zones, both familiar terms to those following the current school board's plans. When federal officials rejected both approaches, Raleigh started busing for racial balance in 1971 and then began using families' economic background as a basis for balancing assignments in 2000.

Margiotta and others on the school board elected last fall say that it's time for a new emphasis on academic achievement and a new way of doing things. And many newcomers in Raleigh suburbs find little to identify with in the long-ago fight to open Murphey and other Raleigh schools to blacks.

"The struggle today is, 'I want my kid to have the best opportunity to have the best education so they can be successful in life,'" said Don Worley, a North Raleigh resident whose grandchildren attend Wake schools. "People think, 'When I buy a house in a neighborhood, I don't want someone to bring students that I perceive to be lesser into my school.'"

Revival of activism

Traditional civil rights groups led by the state NAACP's Rev. William Barber are vigorously fighting the current school board majority over changes they say will deprive minority students of their constitutional right to a sound basic education. In an echo of the '60s, more than 30 people, including Barber, have been arrested during protests against the present-day school board.

But the school board majority found support last week from a Raleigh civil rights leader in saying the former diversity policy has failed the students it was supposed to help most, those in poverty and in low-income families.

"We can do better with the kids in their neighborhoods with the assets there," said Dan Coleman, president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, a group which has represented Raleigh's African American community since 1932.

Coleman, who went to Catholic school in Raleigh with Campbell's older siblings in the 1960s - the school board rejected a bid for the older Campbells to attend white schools - said the diversity policy hasn't been a "panacea" for the students living in Southeast Raleigh.

An analysis by The News & Observer shows that more than half of the nearly 10,000 students who live in Southeast Raleigh are assigned to schools outside the area, bused out for diversity and to create seats for suburban students attending Southeast's magnet schools, which use enhanced academic programs to lure suburban students to schools close to downtown.

"They consider Southeast Raleigh to be a desert with the magnets as self-contained oases," Coleman said of diversity policy supporters. "How has that helped Southeast Raleigh?"

But Alicia Sidney, 26, a Southeast Raleigh mother of two, has appeared at events favoring the old diversity policy and says she has talked to plenty of people who enjoyed the benefit of being bused to well-equipped suburban schools.

She worries that neighborhood-based student assignments could wind up packing her part of town with high-poverty, underserved schools - the kind seen in the area before the passage of civil rights laws.

"How do you ensure that there wouldn't be discrimination?" she said. "How could you ensure that it's going to be equal and not unfair?"

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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