New Desegregation Trial Haunted by Old Problem

By Bob Peterson

The people of Milwaukee are now witnessing and financing a second trial concerning racial segregation in our schools.

The charges; like those of the first trial, are serious.

The costs, like that of the previous one, are high.

The situation, however, is different.

Twenty-two years ago, when the first suit was initiated, a massive civil rights movement was sweeping the nation. Through boycotts, sit-ins, and marches thousands of people were demanding equality and an end to segregation.

Today many people are disillusioned with the unequal desegregation plan, within the city and overwhelmed by the extensive housing segregation in the metropolitan area. Some argue that our energies should be focused on providing equal and quality education within the city and that the current suit is a waste of energy and money. Others counter that quality education and metropolitan desegregation must go hand in hand. A look at some history might help enlighten our understanding of this continuing controversy.

Thousands Marched

In 1963 Lloyd Barbee, then president of the local NAACP, met with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and requested that state funds be cut if the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) did not desegregate. The Milwaukee School Board appointed a committee, held hearings, and received petitions but finally rejected all proposals, that might have led to desegregation. This negative response along with the racist policy of “intact busing” — whereby busloads of blacks students were moved from overcrowded inner city schools to white schools and left intact, going to separate classes, lunch periods and recesses — led blacks to organize boycotts and demonstrations in the next two years. A new organization emerged from these actions called Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC). In 1965 several black parents filed a formal desegregation suit in federal court charging that the Board of School Directors had intentionally segregated the schools.

The record of the Milwaukee Common Council was no better. Between 1962 and 1967 it consistently turned down proposed open housing legislation by votes of 18 – 1, the only dissenter being Vel Phillips, the black member of the council.

Only after thousands of people led by the late James Groppi and the Commandos marched tirelessly for an end to segregation, did the Common Council pass a fair housing ordinance.

The school case took much longer.

On January 19, 1976, eleven years after the initial suit was filed. Judge Reynolds found the School Board guilty as charged. He bluntly stated what many people had known for years: “... the Milwaukee Public Schools … have knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation effecting all of the city’s students, teachers, and school facilities and have intentionally brought about and maintained a dual school system.”

The unrepentant segregationist majority on the School Board fought the decision. Under the leadership of Anthony Busalacchi and lawyer Lawrence Hammond it proceeded to appeal the decision, pushing the total taxpayer expense past the 1.7 million dollar mark.

Pairing and Clustering Rejected

Judge Reynolds and his appointee John Gronouski lacked the backbone to implement a fair desegregation plan. They refused to force the School-Board to adopt a rational pairing and clustering approach to desegregation. Such a proposal, which would have paired all-black and all-white schools together, would have considerably reduced, the amount and distance of busing, would have placed its burden equally on blacks and whites; and would have given parents more control over their local schools. Families from a particular neighborhood would have sent their children to-, one or two schools, thus affording the opportunity for neighborhood school organizing, but instead children were dispersed in “shot-gun” fashion throughout the city.

Proposals for an equal desegregation plan were supported by groups such as the Coalition for Peaceful Schools and People United for Integration and Quality Education and incorporated into what became known as the Committee of 100 Plan. Superintendent McMurrin and his assistant David Bennett, situated between a segregationist board and an increasingly organized and sophisticated community, gave lip-service to the Committee of lOO’s Plan, but all along favored their own “voluntary” plan, much of which McMurrin had proposed as early as October, 1975.

The rest is well known history. After much legal maneuvering and political dealing a Milwaukee desegregation plan was implemented despite the fact it was not in accord with the recommendations of the Committee of 100 and irrespective of the growing disillusionment in the black community.

People correctly criticized the plan for masquerading as a “voluntary” plan when in fact it was voluntary for whites, but mandatory for most blacks. Thousands of black children were forced to take long bus rides when the school board closed their old neighborhood schools or transformed them into city-wide specialties, preventing neighborhood children from attending them except through a citywide lottery.

Eighty-five percent of the students now bused for desegregation purposes are black. Fifty to 75% of the children in black neighborhoods are. bused for purposes of integration while only 4% of the white south-side students are bused. This “shotgun” busing technique has dispersed black children and further disempowered the black community. Children from single neighborhood attendance areas like that of Auer Ave. School have been sent to over 90 different elementary schools! 

“An Immense Success?”

Gronouski, along with local and national press, heralded this “McMurrin Plan” as “an immense success, a model with national ramifications…” all but ignoring its gross inequities.

Disillusioned by this “immense success,” a variety of groups and individuals fought against the inequities in the plan, at times calling for an end to desegregation itself. Triple-0, under the leadership of Larry Harwell, led boycotts during the second and third year of the plan under the slogan ‘Two Way or No Way.”

The late Aurora Weier, along with People United for Education and Quality Education and teaches from Lincoln High School, fought unsuccessfully to maintain Lincoln as a naturally integrated high school. Two other high schools in the black community — King and West — were” made into city-wide specialties.

The .parent-led B-N-R-S Coalition to Save our Schools went to court unsuccessfully to stop the closing of Brown, Ninth, Roosevelt, and Seifert schools, arguing that the closings eliminate the possibility of pairing black and white schools for desegregation.”

None of these efforts bore fruit. On the other hand, Coalition to Save North Division, under the leadership of Howard Fuller and successfully battled to allow neighborhood students to attend the newly constructed North Division.

In 1987, we now see McMurrin chastising the suburbs, the state, City Commissioner Drew and former Governor Earl for their racism. 

Certainly some of the charges leveled by Mc Murrin and the School Board. Are undeniably true. An extremely positive aspect of the whole court case is that the extent and depth of the racist discrimination is being expertly documented and exposed. Housing segregation in this metropolitan area did not just happen by chance, but came about through a complex set of insidious decisions including racially restrictive covenants on the part of governmental bodies, real estate brokers and financial institutions. Irvin Chame, who fought the Milwaukee School Board in the first suit and now represents it in the second, stated “we have here in the metropolitan area an established housing apartheid sanctioned by government for many years.”

Such policies shaped Milwaukee into becoming the second most segregated metropolitan area in the country, according to a study by Kari Taeuber, a sociologist at UW Madison.

Testimony has shown that the same racist policies were also widely practiced within the city of Milwaukee.

McMurrin Should Not Throw Stones

Other suburban school system policies, including discrimination in hiring and refusal  to take unlimited voluntary transfers of black students, further contributed to their overwhelming white makeup.

McMurrin, the publicist for a blatantly unequal and discriminatory “desegregation” plan, should not throw stones. As one peels off the layers of problems with the “McMurrin Plan”, even more emerge. A study done for the National Institute of Education found that the “McMurrin Plan” was designed in such a way that even blacks living in integrated neighborhoods were likely to be bused. Instead of promoting high quality neighborhood schools in existing integrated neighborhoods, large numbers of whites were recruited for the city wide specialty schools from those neighborhoods thus forcing more blacks to be bused out of the integrated neighborhood because of decline in the white/black student ratio.

Charges of discrimination on the basis of class have also been leveled against the “McMurrin Plan”. White children from the more affluent suburbs are given priority in the enrollment process for elementary specialty schools over whites from the mainly working class city.

Finally, the School Board’s and Administration’s emphasis on metropolitan desegregation has diverted desperately needed attention away from what is actually going on in the schools.

Many parents and teachers believe that schools with a largely minority student population can have quality education, but many students are not getting what they deserve.

instead we have judges, lawyers, high level administrators and politicians, most of whom have not been in a public school classroom for decades, determining policy on issues about which they know little.

Racist policies in the suburbs should not be ignored; housing should be desegregated; minorities should be hired and promoted in suburban school systems; minority students should have full opportunities to go to any suburban school they desire.

However, Milwaukee’s “McMurrin desegregation plan” historically has proven to be unequal despite significant community pressure demanding otherwise. Since little pressure animates the current case, it is even less likely the interests of black and Hispanic children of Milwaukee will be served by either an out-of-court or an in court settlement.

Inequalities of Past Should Not be Accepted

I offer the following suggestions in an attempt to move the.discussions away from the current expensive and fruitless name calling.

  • Judge Curran should not accept the inequalities that Judge Reynolds accepted. A solution which relies on increased transfers between the city and suburbs will not solve the problem. We need a comprehensive approach which addresses the continuing in-equities of the desegregation plan currently operating within city schools, the deep seated patterns of residential segregation which plagues the metropolitan area, and the failure of all desegregation efforts to date to give the black and Hispanic communities an effective voice in policy making and education of their children. It is likely that a solution that adequately resolves these problems will include pairing and clustering of schools and some redistricting, to ensure equity in the burden of busing.
  • Such a comprehensive solution will require thoughtful planning. Judge Curran, the State Legislature and/or Governor Thompson should convene a special blue ribbon panel of teachers; parents, building principals, experts in housing and school desegregation and concerned citizens to examine die educational inequities in Milwaukee and between Milwaukee and the suburbs with the goal of developing not just another report to file, but a plan of action to affect long term social policy.
  • Regardless of the outcome of the court case, the Milwaukee School Board should establish a representative committee of parents and educators to critique and revamp the unequal desegregation plan currently operating here.
  • The cost of the court case should be paid for by the suburbs. If there is an out-of-court settlement, each participant pays their own costs, but if settlement goes in the city’s favor the suburbs must pick up the tab. Current estimates are for a total cost of around 18 million dollars. While no breakdown of those fees has yet been made public one might note with irony the reports that of the 24 lawyers working on the suit, 23 are&white males. 
  • Finally, we have more important unfinished business to attend to than the creation of an even larger unequal and discriminatory desegregation plan. The struggle to develop more humane and high quality schools in Milwaukee must not be put into suspended animation as the court case drags on or as a remedy is implemented. Our kids deserve better. And they deserve it now.

Bob Peterson teaches fifth grade at Vieau Elementary School