Monday, September 19, 2016

School Desegregation in DeKalb County, Georgia

Cover of DeKalb County School System
High School Handbook.
Source: Box 19, Folder 3. 
The Russell Library is pleased to announce that the DeKalb County School Desegregation Case Files are open for research. This collection documents litigation to desegregate the DeKalb County Schools from 1968 to 1997 and contains the files of Weekes & Candler, the firm that represented the school district. The files include pleadings, exhibits and other case files, legal research, data collected about the students and staff, and records about the operation of the school system. In addition to documenting the defendant's perspective on this important Georgia case, these files illuminate the evolution of U.S. case law for school desegregation and provides demographic data about the residents of DeKalb County.

Research into legal cases requires a specialized skill set. The Russell Library greatly benefited from the work of Shaniqua Singleton, a graduate student at UGA's School of Law, who delved into the official court records and identified significant moments in the nearly 30 years of litigation. Russell Library archivists also had the opportunity to sit down with Gary Sams and Stan Hawkins, two of the key lawyers for Weekes & Candler on the case, who offered their perspective on the case's history. In this post, I'll share what we learned about the case from both avenues of inquiry.

Photograph of a classroom from the DeKalb County School System
High School Handbook. Source: Box 19, Folder 3.

Legal Research

Litigation in DeKalb County, Georgia, over school desegregation began in 1968 with the filing of a class action lawsuit (Pitts v. Cherry) against the DeKalb County Board of Education to end the practice of racial segregation. In 1969, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia imposed a desegregation plan upon the DeKalb schools and retained authority to oversee the implementation of the plan. The plaintiffs unsuccessfully challenged a portion of the plan in 1979 in the Fifth Circuit Court for not requiring the school district to provide transportation for students attending schools outside of their neighborhoods.

With that ruling, litigation under Pitts v. Cherry was complete, but litigation over other aspects of desegregation continued under the names Freeman v. Pitts and Freeman v. Mills. In 1984, the plaintiffs filed an appeal with the U.S. District Court over plans to build a new high school, claiming this was to avoid the reassignment of white students to predominantly black schools. The District Court ruled that the planned expansion was permissible since the school board's actions were not motivated by discriminatory intent, but their ruling was overturned on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court (which had been formed from a portion of the Fifth Circuit in 1981). The Circuit Court ruled in 1985 that any of the school's expansion plans had to be implemented in a way that "furthers desegregation and helps eliminate the effects of the previous dual school system" and sent the case back to the District Court to evaluate the "segregative" effects of the school board's expansion plan.

The District Court re-evaluated the case in 1988 and found that DeKalb County had not yet been completely integrated, having met four of the criteria for integration (student assignments, transportation, physical facilities, and extracurricular activities) but not meeting requirements in the areas of faculty assignments and resource allocations. The District Court declined to impose additional duties on the school board around student assignment. This ruling was appealed to the Eleventh Circuit in 1989, which reversed the decision and required additional student assignments, as well as requiring the school board to remain under complete court supervision until full integration was achieved.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992, which reversed the Eleventh Circuit Court's holding that judicial supervision could not be withdrawn incrementally. Instead, the court could withdraw judicial supervision in areas of compliance while retaining supervision in areas of noncompliance. The case was then sent back to the Eleventh Circuit, and from there to the District Court, for review based on this ruling. In 1996, the case was heard again in the District Court, which ordered the final dismissal of the case in 1997. DeKalb County Schools were declared integrated and therefore the school board no longer required judicial supervision.

Lawyers’ Recollections

Gary Sams and Stan Hawkins, lawyers for the defense, understood the case to have three stages. In the first stage (1969-1972), the District Court made the ruling that DeKalb County Schools must desegregate, as required by Brown v. Board of Education, and the school system went to work on the plan. DeKalb County had the financial ability to close all of the black schools, so they did not have the challenge of resistance from white families who did not want to have their children at historically black schools. With the black schools closed, they reset the attendance boundaries and it seemed like their work was accomplished.

Pamphlet on the M-to-M
(Majority-to-Minority) transfer
program. Source: Box 42, Folder 22
Stage two (1972-1986) began when Roger Mills, a dedicated activist, got involved as attorney for the plaintiff. He kept the case going by his own efforts until the NAACP also got involved. By this time, there was general agreement that the schools should desegregate. The litigation focused on particular arguments about if desegregation had been fully achieved or not, which centered around six factors from Green v.School Board of New Kent County, decided by the Supreme Court in 1968. Efforts were complicated by changes in residential patterns, especially when the completion of I-20 through Georgia led to more African Americans moving into the southern part of the county and more whites moving into the northern part of the county or leaving the county all together. Concerns included the effectiveness of busing students outside of their neighborhoods to achieve desegregation and teachers who did not want to relocate in order to achieve racial balance among the different schools.

The final stage of the case, defined by unitary status hearings, began in 1986. During this stage, the defendants argued that DeKalb County Schools was fully desegregated and that court supervision of the school board should end. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in 1989, although it was delayed until rulings were made for Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell. Freeman v. Pitts was heard in the Supreme Court in 1992, at which point it was the longest running case in Georgia's history. After a few more years of litigation resulting from the Supreme Court ruling, the case was closed in 1997.

Post by Adriane Hanson, Digital Curation and Processing Archivist

1 comment:

Diane Williams-Shirley said...

This is very interesting reading.I was not aware of all of this since I am not from GA. It's extremely surprising to me that all of this occurred in the 80' and 90's. Wow!