Perhaps as a historical accident, many years ending with the number 4 have a remarkable civil rights significance. For example, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964. Ten years before that, another civil rights milestone was reached. The 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education began the long process of desegregation in public schools.
Integration didn’t happen overnight, however. In the 1950s and 1960s, children attended schools which reflected the demographic makeup of their neighborhoods. In the “integrated” Seneca High School Class of 1962 , for example, there were fewer than 20 African-Americans out of a total of 250 students. Not coincidentally, the Bon Air neighborhood in which Seneca is located was nearly 100 percent white at the time.
By the 1970s, decades of racist housing policies – both private and public – had carved the city of Louisville into racial enclaves. African-Americans were pushed out of downtown into the West End by urban renewal, and whites had fled south and east, insulated by banks and home builders who refused to sell suburbia to anyone else. As a result, schools in Louisville remained “de facto” segregated long after Brown.
In late 1974, compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court case of Milliken v. Bradley, federal judge James Gordon ordered Louisville school systems to desegregate. In 1975, the separate city and county districts merged into JCPS and implemented Gordon’s busing plan, which transferred students to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Whites in Louisville responded with protests, rioting, and death threats to then-Mayor Harvey Sloane even though the plan was far more disruptive to black students (who could be bused 10 out of 12 years compared to just two out of 12 for whites).
Eventually things calmed down. Tensions eased. And JCPS continued busing students even after Judge Gordon’s supervision ended in 1978, with only limited changes to student ratios in 1984.
During the 1984-85 school year, my family moved from Camp Taylor to Crescent Hill. A kindergartner at the time, I transferred to Field Elementary and went there for first grade the next year. Field was just two blocks from my house, and each day I walked to school.
In 1986, though, it was my turn to be bused. Instead of returning to Field, I was sent instead to Coleridge-Taylor Elementary, at the corner of Chestnut and 11th Street just west of downtown.
To me, a 7-year-old white kid from the inner East End, my new school could have been on Jupiter for all I knew. Rather than a five-minute walk, I had to take a one-hour bus ride from one side of town to another to get to school.
Along the route to and from Coleridge-Taylor, my bus drove through the Beecher Terrace housing project. From the window, my young, privileged eyes saw a part of the city I understood only as “poor” and “black.” I vaguely knew that I was supposed to be scared of the place, but I wasn’t. There were dingy apartment buildings instead of pretty houses like in Crescent Hill, but the people I saw outside my window did the same things we did in my neighborhood – walked on the sidewalks, reclined on porches, played in the parks.
But though I may not have been prejudiced, I certainly was naive. I didn’t know just how different that neighborhood was from mine for many years. It took a long time for me to learn the origin of housing projects like Beecher Terrace and the powerful, racist forces that concentrated African-Americans in one part of town while whites occupied the rest. Urban renewal. Deed restrictions. Redlining. Terrorism.
Louisville’s system of busing helped lessen, at least to some small extent, the impact of that very purposeful, racial division. It helped open the eyes of privileged children like me by introducing us to places and people we would never have encountered had we stayed closer to home.
Unfortunately, Louisville’s original busing plan was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2007 because, in the opinion of the five conservative Justices, it too broadly discriminated on the basis of race and its original mission of desegregation had been achieved.
But as the Metropolitan Housing Coalition’s recently released 2014 State of Metropolitan Housing Report shows, the legacy of segregation persists today. African-Americans still are concentrated in the West End and the Newburg area, with minimal diversity elsewhere. The median wage in those areas remains suppressed, and educational achievement is low. Public housing is restricted (mostly by zoning laws) to four out of the 26 total Metro Council districts, with the rich and the poor kept far apart. The “de facto” segregation the busing plan was designed to alleviate still remains.
But make no mistake, as MHC director Cathy Hinko has pointed out, this is not some accident of history. It isn’t really “de facto” at all. Our divided city is the result of intentional policy decisions.
In the 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act, and the 40 years since Milliken v. Bradley, our country has made strides toward racial equality and integration. But the growing temporal distance between the tumultuous Civil Rights era and the present day has perhaps led us to let down our guard, to assume the battle has been won. It has not.
Now, in the twilight of 2014, the country is being swept by demonstrations against the many deaths of unarmed black men and boys at the hands of white police officers.
Our own city remains divided. And the cries for racial justice once again sound from the streets – here and all across the country. As the unrest in St. Louis, New York, and elsewhere has recently shown us, division creates distrust, anger, and injury.
Our city leaders must take seriously the Metropolitan Housing Coalition’s report, and we all must combat the legal and historical forces which divide our neighborhoods along racial lines, elevating some at the expense of others. We have seen the damage that disunity causes, and the longer we delay, the harder to repair it will become.