Editor’s note: Paul Greenberg, former editorial page editor of the Pine Bluff Commercial and retired editorial page editor and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for a series of editorials he wrote in 1968 on civil rights. Greenberg described the editorials during an interview once as being about the “need for understanding and the respect for the rights of others.” We believe those sensibilities are worthy of review again, considering the racial protests and other turmoil in the country today. For that reason, we are republishing each of Mr. Greenberg’s award-winning editorials over the course of several weeks, and we thank him for allowing us to do so.
In all, Greenberg submitted seven “exhibits” to be considered for the Pulitzer. This segment, which was submitted as “EXHIBIT 6,” said: “In which the Commercial appeals to local pride, conscience and reason on behalf of desegregating the public schools. The Pine Bluff School Board, over the opposition of the local chapter of Freedom, Inc., and under pressure from H.E.W., is now in the process of adopting such a plan.”
LESSON FROM LITTLE ROCK, NOV. 5, 1968
What would happen to Pine Bluff’s school system, and to Pine Bluff, if our school board could be pressured into dropping its plans for a more even distribution of Negro and white students throughout the school system?
Anyone wondering about the answer to that question might look a few miles up the road to Little Rock, which consistently refused to consider any such approach when it was recommended by its own school administrators. The Little Rock School District wound up in federal court—under orders to eliminate its dual school system.
INSTEAD OF trying to achieve a system in which each school has a black-white ratio similar to the whole district’s, Little Rock went for geographical zoning, or neighborhood schools. In practice, this means that the burden of integration will fall on a relative handful of students and their neighborhoods: The school district plans to have 66 white pupils to 978 Negroes at Horace Mann High next year, and 4 Negroes to 1,361 whites at Hall High. The burden of integrating Little Rock’s schools will not be very evenly distributed: only 982 white students in the district are scheduled to attend mainly Negro schools. While some 14,300 white students will stay in mainly white or all-white schools.
Given this arrangement, one wonders how long those 982 white students and their families will choose to remain in mainly Negro school zones. Their departure is bound to further divide the city along racial lines.
White families will understandably hesitate before moving into Negro school zones, and Negroes before moving into white school zones. Borderline neighborhoods may grow uneasy as Negro families seeking a better education for their children move in, and prompt the exodus of whites familiar in such cases. The racial composition of the various elementary schools will tend to determine the color of the neighborhood until race becomes more an obsession than a statistical item. Until the unhealthy pattern of a racially divided city—the Chicago Syndrome—emerges once again.
THIS UNHEALTHY pattern ought to be familiar by now: Residential areas segregated in fact, suddenly lower property values in borderline neighborhoods, children who grow up not knowing those of another race as anything but Them—with all that holds for the future of race relations.
White ratio in each school similar to that of the whole district’s—which is the approach Pine Bluff’s school board is taking.
The school board certainly deserves a decent chance to work out its fairer and more far-sighted plan. With each school having a similar ration of Negro and white students, the burden of integration would be distributed more fairly, property values protected and the prospect of a hostile and divided city lessened appreciably.
THOSE WHO argue that Freedom-of-Choice can be perpetuated in Pine Bluff’s school system are often drawn to less than definitive examples—a lower court ruling in Louisiana, say, or rumors about a school district in Maryland. It would be more relevant to notice what is happening just up the road. Like, for instance, the court’s order to the Little Rock School District: “The law requires that the present dual biracial school system in Little Rock and a unitary school system be established. I do not wish to see a plan… that includes Freedom-of-Choice because I am ruling that out now.” This court order is perfectly consistent with the latest ruling of the United States Supreme Court. And the sooner we begin living with that decision instead of just cussin’ it, the better it will be for Pine Bluff’s schools and children.
Despite the energetic efforts of Freedom, Inc., to spread the rumor that the election of Richard Nixon has taken the wind out of the federal government’s insistence that racial segregation promptly be eliminated, the word may not have reached Washington: The Department of Housing and Urban Development has just suspended a $125,549 planning grant to Little Rock because the Justice Department claims that segregation is not being eliminated promptly enough in that city’s public housing. Though the sum of $125,549 may be minor compared to the social and economic costs Little Rock is risking by dissecting its school system.
One way to meet the imminent end of Freedom-of-Choice here is the way Little Rock did—to fragment the city into zones that may breed hostility and instability. The other way is to let all the schools share the burden of integration fairly, which is what Pine Bluff’s school board proposes.
THE NEW SCHOOL PLAN DEC. 12, 1968
In a move that ought to spike rumors and speculation about its plans for integration, the Pine Bluff School Board this week released the outlines of its plan for next year.
Instead of creating one big high school for the entire district—as it once planned—the board decided to assign all 11th and 12th graders to Pine Bluff High, and 9th and 10th graders to Merrill and Southeast. After the first psychological shock of having kids of both races assigned in sizable numbers to schools we’re used to thinking of as white or black, and after adjusting to the new school routes involved for the kids, the major advantage of the school board’s approach remains clear: it does not create junior and senior high schools identifiable by race. Unlike the Little Rock School Board’s new plan, it won’t make tokens out of a few white children in mainly Negro schools, or assign only a conspicuous handful of black children to mainly white schools. It doesn’t split the community into black and white high schools or junior high schools. And it doesn’t put the burden of integrating high schools or junior high schools on any one race or neighborhood. It is a hopeful plan for the city’s junior and senior high schools, and an expression of confidence in the co-operative spirit of the whole community.
NO INTEGRATION plan can be perfect, any more than a plan to continue segregation can be acceptable. This plan may inconvenience some and convenience others, or it may simply involve trading some inconveniences we’re used to for some we’re not, which is not always an easy adjustment.
We are particularly sorry that the school board’s committee on desegregation has found it impractical to house all three top grades at Pine Bluff High; the idea of One Big High School has appealed to us as a united and democratic expression of a community. We are sorry Pine Bluff High now has to be reserved for the top two grades, and we hope the idea of One Big High School, for reasons of both economy and sentiment, isn’t gone forever.
BUT NO SCHOOL board could devise the perfect plan, and we’ll put this one up against Little Rock’s any day. Certainly the school board deserves its by now regular commendation for hard work on a difficult and sensitive problem.
The members of the board in these post-1954 times have to put up with a lot of difficult problems; they certainly should not have to put up with a lot of guff, too. They continue to deserve the interest and support of the community they’re working for.
THE SCHOOL BOARD is sticking with Freedom-of-Choice in the elementary schools, a decision that ought to please its critics in Freedom, Inc., if not the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in Washington or Dr. Robert Smith in Pine Bluff, a Negro member of the Mayor’s Biracial Advisory Committee who is disappointed that the board didn’t go further in integrating the elementary schools.
HEW’s reaction to the plan will provide a local test of the Waiting-for-Nixon syndrome, which includes the hunch that the onset of a Nixon administration will make HEW less touchy about enforcing integration. This theory will enjoy a new credibility if HEW, after turning down a Freedom-of-Choice plan for Pine Bluff last July, accepts this one. It would be surprising if Freedom-of-Choice has much more success at promoting integration in the elementary schools now than it has in the past. The school board’s decision to stick with it may be wishful thinking. Or it may be a bone thrown to Freedom, Inc., before final disposition of the plan by HEW. Or maybe it’s both.
PUT EDUCATION FIRST, DEC. 24, 1968
Education Must Come First. That has been the conventional response to the Negro’s drive for equal opportunity in any number of areas—the vote, jobs, housing… except, of course, in education itself. Then, if the phrase is used at all, Education Must Come First acquires the parenthetical connotation: (And Equal Opportunity Second.)
There is nothing like integration to produce organizations with the state aim of putting education first. They seem to spring into existence—like Little Rock’s Education First Committee or Pine Bluff’s chapter of Freedom, Inc.,—only when integration comes up.
WHEN THE Pine Bluff School Board announced that it intended to fully integrate the district’s junior and senior high schools next year, one officer of Freedom, Inc., said he personally objected to the plan because, he said, it would lower education standards. Sure not educational standards as a whole, since the district would have pretty much the same students, faculty, and administration after integration as before.
What he must have meant is that full integration would lower the educational standards of white students by educating them together with Negroes. This is an argument as yet unsubstantiated by any objective data. We wish more data were available. The Coleman Report—for what it’s worth—found no decline in the educational pace of white students, and a marked improvement in the performance of the Negroes, when both races were educated together and the Negroes were in the minority. Which would be the situation in each junior and senior high school under the school board’s plan, which aims for a racial balance in each school similar to that of the district as a whole: 60 to
Such as it is, the consensus of professional opinion in education is that the educational quality of an integrated school system can best be maintained when such a racial balance is maintained. The school board’s approach does put education first.
The only likely alternative to the school board’s approach is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood division of that city that would put almost the entire burden of integration on some neighborhoods and leave others unaffected. This system would mean that in some schools, perhaps in older or poorer neighborhoods, white students might be reduced to a handful. Other schools might be left all-white or with only a sprinkling of Negro students. And lines would be drawn that would tend to divide the community by race, class and neighborhood—all with the divisions, jealousies and instability that would create. The school board’s way, with each school having a balanced racial attendance, is much the more fair and far-sighted approach.
ANY CLAIM, incidentally, that the Negro student entering the 7th Grade next year is far behind his counterpart is not much evidence that Freedom-of-Choice, after five years, has been able to produce equal education within that limited time. If there is evidence that all-Negro schools are responsible for educational handicaps in their students, then the school board should consider eliminating such schools before the 7th grade, rather than allowing educational problems to develop and deepen for the six grades before. On the other hand, if segregated, all-Negro schools are doing an effective job of education, there should be fewer qualms when integration comes in the 7th Grade.
If educational handicaps stem from sources outside school, then they must be confronted wherever they originate. Any educational handicaps among Negro students as a whole are now more than ever the concern of the community in these desegregated days. And those handicaps must be tackled in the most effective way. Education must come first.
Print Headline: Schools’ path to integration