It’s illegal to form a school district with the purpose of excluding people because of their race. Yet over the years, Jefferson County’s white residents have been allowed to carve out half a dozen exclusive enclaves. In 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown ruling declaring that separate schools for black and white children were inherently unequal, there were five school districts in Jefferson County. In the 63 years since then, that number has more than doubled as white communities established new school districts separate from the increasingly black and Latino county district. If Gardendale succeeds, it would become the 13th school district in Jefferson County. While this kind of splintering has been going on across the country, what makes the Jefferson County case unique is the federal government’s power to stop it there. That’s because Jefferson County is one of just 176 school districts, out of the 13,500 across the nation, that are still under federal oversight to make sure they’re keeping their promise to fully eliminate all vestiges of Jim Crow.
Yet six decades after Brown, federal judges and officials rarely check to see if districts are obeying their orders to desegregate—and in many cases, schools in districts with a history of discrimination against black children have actually grown more segregated under federal supervision. And when the judges do step in, they’ve often sided with the districts where school segregation is getting worse. Leslie Williams and the other parents who have fought these moves have been left wondering how the courts and the Justice Department could have so completely turned their backs on the vision of integrated schools first charted out by civil-rights lawyers and the courts in the 1950s and ’60s.