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The Resegregation of Jefferson County

What one Alabama town’s attempt to secede from its school district tells us about the fragile progress of racial integration in America.

When a new succession of heavily white towns sought to break off from Jefferson County, beginning in the late 1980s, they went unchallenged, even though each secession siphoned large numbers of white students from the district, which had yet to comply fully with the court’s mandate to desegregate. By 2005, Jefferson County was divided into 12 distinct and vastly disparate school systems, many of them either heavily black or heavily white, making the school-district boundaries there among the most segregated in the nation. “State law required separate schools before Brown,” says Erica Frankenberg, an Alabama native and education policy professor at Penn State University who has studied Jefferson County secessions extensively. “Now it is district lines that maintain segregation.”

After decades of violent and brutal resistance, white Southerners largely acquiesced to the desegregation of other public places, of parks, restaurants, city buses and libraries. Contact in those spaces tended to be superficial, and if white people did not want to be around black people, they could simply avoid them. Schools were different. Nearly every American child, then and now, attended a public school. Schools were intimate. For hours each day, students sat next to one another, learned with one another, influenced one another. And also, most frightening, fell in love with one another. In the spring of 1954, as the Supreme Court was deliberating over the Brown case, President Dwight Eisenhower invited Chief Justice Earl Warren to dinner, where he attempted to explain that white Southerners “are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negro.” But even more than that, Americans saw schools as the primary drivers of opportunity and success, and white Americans had no desire to share access to the best schools and educational resources for which they’d always held the monopoly.

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