In the 1960s, there were two kinds of school segregation in America. In the South there was "de jure" segregation — dual separate (and deeply unequal) white and Colored school systems that were formally and legally segregated. In northern cities like Los Angeles, there was "de facto" segregation. This northern-style segregation was imposed by the careful drawing of school district boundaries, use of racially-biased academic tracking programs, and disparities in resource allocations and teacher assignments.
White officials in the South proudly boasted, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In the North, the white school boards and politicians who imposed de facto segregation piously denied any racial discrimination on their part at all. Instead, they positioned themselves as champions of "neighborhoods" and "neighborhood schools." But as shown by how they drew their "neighborhood" school district boundaries their definition of "neighborhood" did not mean "nearby," it meant race.
In Los Angeles, for example, Alameda Street divided white and Black communities — east of Alameda everyone was white, to the west it was all Afro-American. Yet "neighborhood" school boundaries were drawn along Alameda even for schools that were actually on Alameda. Which meant that children living across the road from a school designated for a different race would have to go many blocks to reach their "neighborhood" school rather than simply crossing the street.
In the South, a large majority of whites fiercely opposed school integration as an assault on their cherished "southern way of life." A way of life based on white-supremacy and brutally-enforced Black subservience and social inferiority.
In the North, many white parents worried for their child's safety because to them a dark skin was an indicator of crime and violence. And many feared that their children's education would suffer if they had to share classrooms and hallways with significant numbers of Blacks or Latinos. That fear held a kernel of truth because white school boards systematically under-funded and disadvantaged schools with significant numbers of nonwhite students. Everyone in town knew that the white high schools were the "good" ones and the Black, Latino, and integrated schools were the "bad" ones. So while most white parents in the North would accept few token nonwhites in a school their kids attended, more than that — No! (And for most it was unthinkable that their white child go to a school where whites were a minority.)
On a deeper level, school integration raised white dread of interracial dating, sex, and the perceived horror of "miscegenation." (Unbeknownst to everyone at that time, a child born of just such an interracial marriage in Honolulu would go on to become President of the United States — a reality that some whites are still unable to cope with to this day.)
The proclaimed value of "neighborhood schools" was the justification for northern school segregation, and providing "good" (meaning "white") schools for their kids was a major rationale used by those who fought to maintain white-only neighborhoods. So it's no surprise that battles over school segregation raged in parallel with struggles over segregated housing in northern cities like Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago, & elsewhere.
In the 1960s, the Los Angeles Unified School District was the third largest in the nation, and under their covert system of defacto segregation the disparities between white and nonwhite schools in resources, quality of education, and graduation rates, were both stark and undeniable. Except for a handful of integrated schools, most L.A. schools were segregated — either overwhelmingly white with a few token Blacks, Latinos, Asians, or Indians, or overwhelmingly nonwhite with perhaps a handful of whites.
Almost all of the district's Black students were in 93 overwhelmingly segregated, underfunded, and overcrowded schools while most of the remaining 400 or so schools were either entirely all-white or almost so. Three-quarters of all L.A. elementary schools were overwhelmingly white, yet 90% of the elementary schools forced by overcrowding to limit children to half-day sessions were among those that were overwhelmingly Afro-American or Latino* because that's how the Board of Education (BoE) chose to allocate resources and assign students.
[*L.A. school segregation statistics from this era are primarily from court cases filed by Afro-American parents. At that time there were no similar suits by Latino or Asian parents so the BoE was able to conceal how they were segregating Latino and Asian students.]
While nonwhite kids who experienced school more as inmates than valued pupils may have preferred half-day sessions, their parents definitely did not. Inspired by Brown v Board of Education and Freedom Movement successes in the South against de jure segregation, Black parents in L.A. began demanding that something be done to significantly improve their children's education. The NAACP, Afro-American community leaders, and local ministerial groups conducted studies, issued reports, and negotiated with the BoE and City Council for years — to no avail.
What nonwhite parents wanted was a quality education for their kids. Since 70% of L.A. County voters at that time were white, it was clear that the BoE would remain a bastion of white political power and decades of experience had shown that white officials would not equally-fund or fairly-staff schools that few white children attended. So in 1962, Black parents demanded school integration as the only feasible way to ensure equal educational resources for schools with significant numbers of Black, Latino, Asian, and Native-American students.
Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Though white officials publicly denied any racial intent on their part, some BoE members ran for election on explicit, openly-stated, anti-integration platforms, and others on praise of "neighborhood" schools. Year after year, the board adamantly refused to collect or release relevant statistics and they uniformly stonewalled desegregation demands by CORE and the NAACP. Which is precisely what most white voters and public office-holders wanted them to do.
Located in the heart of city's Black ghetto, Wrigley Field on Avalon Ave had once been the baseball stadium for the L.A. Angels. In the summer of 1963, it was the site of a civil rights rally where some 35,000 people heard an address by Dr. King. Afterwards, CORE, NAACP, ACLU, WCLC, and other groups formed the United Civil Rights Committee (UCRC) which took on defacto school segregation. UCRC demanded:
Over the summer of 1963, a number of mass protests for integrated schools — primarily organized by CORE — marched from Wrigley Field to the Board of Education (BoE) offices on Sunset Ave. When school resumed in September, CORE activists staged a seven day hunger fast in a BoE hallway. The Board and local politicians adamantly rejected all charges of racism and segregation — and all demands for change. Board member L.C. Chambers accused UCRC leadership of being "communists" and told the press that if little Black and Latino history was being taught it was because there was, "Not much of it to teach."
CORE's direct-action protests against school segregation generated even more hostility among a significant portion of the white population than had the housing tract sit-ins and picket lines. That "White Backlash" was part of the nation-wide reaction against Black demands for human rights, racial equality, economic justice, and a fair share of political power.
The White Backlash alarmed the liberal wing of Democratic Party. Conservative Democrats against whom they competed in primaries were solid backers of the segregated status quo who enthusiastically exalted the sanctity of "neighborhoods" — as did the Republicans that liberal Democrats faced in the November general elections. (Republicans in the 1960s were still strong enough in California to frequently win not only local and statewide offices but even presidential campaigns.)
Democratic Party campaign managers were terrified that if Afro-Americans pushed too hard and too fast for school and housing integration, aroused whites would flock to the polls and defeat liberals in the primary and Democrats in the general election. Yet almost ten years after Brown, liberal politicians had to publicly support the theoretical concept of integration — with, of course, "all deliberate speed," "in due time," "as conditions mature" — or risk alienating their base among Black, Latino, Jewish, and liberal white voters.
Most of UCRC leaders and a narrow majority of CORE's elected leaders were associated with the Democratic Party's liberal wing. While they supported using protests — in moderation — for education and consciousness raising, they shared the politico's deep apprehension over the white backlash electoral threat. So by October of 1963 they sought to halt all further demonstrations against school segregation, favoring instead a shift back to the 1962 strategy of community education on the evils of racism and negotiation with the powers that were.
This put CORE's negotiation-oriented moderate leaders at odds with the "action-faction," the CORE members who argued for militant protests. The conflict came to a head over the "study-ins," a type of low-key sit-in. The BoE met every Thursday afternoon, so after school an integrated group of several hundred CORE supporters, mostly college and high school students, entered BoE headquarters and sat down in the corridors leading to the board room, leaving open space so that no one was blocked from entering or leaving. They did homework and read school books (or at least pretended to) until the board meeting ended. It was called a "study-in" to counter segregationists who seemed to fear some kind of horrible racial catastrophe if Black and white students studied together.
Four such Thursday study-ins were held during October of 1964 with from 200-400 participants, the last ones at the end of the month culminating in two nonviolent, night-long "vigils." The study-ins and vigils stirred up media controversy and a storm of opposition from angry whites. The furor alarmed the CORE and UCRC leaders aligned with the Democratic Party. They characterized the study-ins and vigils as "provocative" and maneuvered within CORE's internal procedures to block them.
Early in November, the moderates defeated the action-faction in CORE's annual leadership election. With complete control of CORE's elected offices, the moderates immediately halted all further direct action protests around school and housing segregation. The minority of LA CORE members who favored militant direct action withdrew and formed the Non-Violent Action Committee (N-VAC) at the end of the year with a focus on fighting against employment discrimination.
But the end of CORE/UCRC protests didn't end the struggle against segregated education. Four years later the issue exploded again in East Los Angeles. Just as Afro-Americans were forced into overcrowded, highly-segregated schools, so too were Latinos living in East L.A. Like the four all-Black high schools in South-Central L.A. — Jordan, Fremont, Jefferson, and Manual Arts — the four Latino high schools, Garfield, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Wilson, were notorious for their high dropout and low college-admittance rates, for inflicting corporal punishment on students (swats with a wooden paddle), and for penalizing students for speaking Spanish with their friends which was forbidden. In 1968, students at those four schools organized a series of student strikes called "walkouts" to protest conditions.
Black students at segregated Jefferson High joined them, protesting around similar issues. For more than a week student-led walkouts, rallies, and demonstrations roiled the system as students from other schools, including some white students, joined the Latinos and Blacks. The BoE called in the police, and students at Roosevelt who were nonviolently sitting on the school steps were attacked by cops in riot gear. Under threat of escalated police violence, the walkouts were suppressed.
In 1970, Judge Gitelson ruled that the Los Angeles Unified School District "knowingly, affirmatively, and in bad faith" deliberately segregated L.A. schools. He ordered them to desegregate the predominantly Black and Latino schools by 1972. President Nixon and Governor Reagan condemned the ruling and angry whites immediately voted Gitelson out of office. The desegregation order was blocked pending appeal.
Finally, in 1976, the California Supreme Court ruled that L.A. had to desegregate its schools. Again the Board of Education, white parents, and white politicians resisted. Anti-integration forces put Proposition-1 before the voters, who passed it in 1979 by a two-thirds majority. Prop-1 changed the California constitution to bar all court-ordered school integration plans everywhere in the state. Unlike U.S. Supreme Court Justices who are appointed for life, California justices have to run for re-election after serving a set term. Capitulating to the political winds, the California Supreme Court choose not to overturn Prop-1 on constitutional grounds — as they legally could have done. California thus became the first state in America to eviscerate and completely eliminate court-ordered school desegregation state-wide.
Prop-1 remains in effect to this day. Ever since, school segregation in Southern California has remained. According to a 2011 report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project:
"Southern California schools show profound segregation by race, poverty, and language status, all of which are visibly related to disparities in educational opportunity and outcomes. ... Over twice as many intensely segregated secondary schools were identified by the state as critically overcrowded compared to predominately white and Asian schools ... less than 50% of Grade-9 students in intensely segregated schools graduated on time. In schools educating a majority of white and Asian youth, 81% graduated on time. ... students in intensely segregated schools were close to three times as likely to have a teacher lacking full qualifications than students attending majority white and Asian schools." — Divided We Fail: Segregated and Unequal Schools in the Southland.
Portions of this article were adapted from "Troublemaker" Memories of the Freedom Movement.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford.