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`It feels like we're back in the '60s'

In Birmingham, Ala., a group of residents and activists opposes a bid to end a court's school desegregation order.

October 22, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM, ALA. — For 35 years under court order, the yellow buses have picked up black children from the city's Oxmoor Valley and carried them up the hill and across city limits to affluent, mostly white suburban public schools.

Rita Jones Turner was one of the first children to be bused to Vestavia Hills after a 1970 federal court order required the district to enroll African Americans from her neighborhood. The bus, which was often late and sometimes never came, took her to a middle school where teachers tried to put her in remedial classes and white classmates tore her barrettes from her hair.

Today, her youngest son, a ninth-grader at Vestavia Hills High School, makes the same journey up the hill into a friendlier environment.

But last month, he came home with a letter informing her that the Vestavia Hills school board had filed a motion to end the desegregation order. The district is among a growing number across the nation seeking to have the decades-old orders overturned; this year, dozens have succeeded.

Now, Jones Turner, a 45-year-old consumer debt counselor, finds herself struggling against the idea that the personal hardships she endured during the 1970s would just be part of a failed social experiment.

"We were used, mistreated, downtrodden and discriminated against," she said, her firm voice swelling as she retraced her old bus route one recent afternoon. "I have no problem with being a sacrificial lamb for the good of the community, but to have the system back out now is not fair. They made a commitment to educate black children."

Home of civil rights history

Those fighting to keep the order in place are particularly disappointed that the issue would be revisited in Birmingham, where so much of the civil rights movement's history was made. In the last 15 years, city leaders have built museums and monuments to commemorate the four schoolgirls who died in the 1963 bombing of a black church, and the demonstrators who were met with attack dogs in a march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the same year.

But the district says its request is a matter of economics, not race -- that absorbing the children of Oxmoor Valley is an unfair burden on its budget.

Vestavia Hills' desegregation order was to be in place until 25% of the school system's population was African American. Today, 7% of its students are black, with about a quarter of those coming from Oxmoor Valley. Some vestiges of the old South remain: The Vestavia Hills High School mascot is the Rebel, depicted as a white-haired man in Confederate-era garb; although the practice is now discouraged by the school, some students still display Confederate flags at football games.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision found school segregation to be unconstitutional, and a follow-up ruling in 1968, many school systems were ordered to bus children from other districts to achieve integration.

This fall, the justices will hear appeals from parents in Seattle and in Louisville, Ky., who say it is unconstitutional for officials to consider race when deciding what school a student will attend. Meanwhile, over the last 15 years, courts have lifted desegregation orders in more than 100 school districts from Alabama to California -- often after districts showed they were making a good faith effort, successful or not, to achieve racial integration. This year, federal courts have sided 36 times with districts seeking to overturn desegregation orders involving the Justice Department.

Only a few requests to end the orders have been rejected. In June, for example, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court decision to keep the school district of Little Rock, Ark., under its desegregation order, arguing it did not sufficiently appraise how its academic programs helped black students.

Opponents come together

In Birmingham, a well-connected group of civil rights activists, lawmakers, attorneys, pastors and residents has come together over the last month to oppose Vestavia Hills' request to end the desegregation order.

"They are saying to Martin Luther King, 'To hell with your dream: This is 2006 and it's business as usual in Vestavia Hills,' " said the Rev. Jonathan McPherson, who was jailed with King in 1963 and is board chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Birmingham chapter.

The Vestavia Hills desegregation order was issued after the affluent southeastern suburb established its own school system to avoid sending its children to integrated Birmingham city schools. A federal judge ruled that the 99% white system had to accept children from a designated portion of the neighboring Oxmoor Valley.

Now, Vestavia Hills is asking a federal judge to grant it unitary status, freeing it from court supervision and further desegregation obligations.

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