OPINION — Ed Sanders was both unique and ordinary. He became, in his own way, a hero just for doing his job.
When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools integrated in North Carolina, if you can call it that, by allowing a handful of African American students to attend schools formerly reserved for whites only in September 1957, Sanders was principal of Central High. He had to smooth the way for Gus Roberts, its first black student, in a city still segregated in everything from housing to swimming pools to bathrooms.
As he told me when I interviewed him more than a decade ago, Sanders, a Simpsonville, South Carolina, native, had no particular desire to be a pioneer; all he knew was that he was principal. He prepared by enlisting the football team as protectors, using the threat of a canceled season as leverage and anointing a custodian as the young man’s unobtrusive guardian angel. When crowds gathered and one boy knocked the cap off the new kid’s head, Sanders threatened him and any other troublemaker with expulsion from his school and every other one in the city as he escorted Roberts through the front door.
It was a rocky time, especially hard on Roberts, who was not allowed to participate in clubs or social activities like the prom, and who endured a few physical attacks. “I don’t know if I would have had the strength he did,” Sanders said of the 16-year-old. But the school year ended without major incident.
The problem never was what vehicle Roberts rode in to get to Central.
In the words of those African Americans who viewed school desegregation through a realistic lens, the appropriate slogan was: “It’s not the bus, it’s us.”
That’s why the current dueling discussion of busing as a tool to integrate schools — highlighted in a debate exchange between Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — was misdirection at its finest.
It makes sense, of course. Who wants to admit that the issue of successfully integrating schools — because of the lack of political and personal will to make more than incremental progress — is an American dilemma that is as relevant as ever, rooted in attitudes that extend far beyond the classroom?
But to make an inanimate yellow vehicle the villain of the piece is to ignore the racism that made some school systems, such as the one in Prince Edward County in Virginia, shut down rather than integrate, as it poured tax credits into private academies for whites only, a model for other locations.
The hypocrisy of the revisionist history is embodied in the case of Linda Brown, the African American student from Kansas whose name graces the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, who only wanted to attend her neighborhood school — the one she could walk to — rather than travel to the all-black one.
It wasn’t about buses. When it comes to dismantling segregation — in schools, housing and employment, or laws that governed who American citizens of different races could and could not marry — it has always been about the “us.”
What was and is called government overreach really meant the feds stepping in when cities and states dug in their heels to resist every effort to achieve a just society. The social engineering came not from the federal government but from the redlining, poll taxes, restrictions and separate and unequal rules that translated into some all-American, tax-paying citizens being denied.
Too many fought, often violently, against change instead of leaning into what was unfamiliar, like Sanders, who put his head down and did the work.
In contrast, leaders at Harding High in Charlotte in 1957 stood by as black student Dorothy Counts, dressed in the beautiful dress her grandmother had made for the first day of school, was met by jeering, abusive crowds of adults and teens, who spit on her and threatened her, in a startling image seen around the world.
Again, no bus in sight, and this time no protection from the school’s leaders. In fact, a brick that smashed the window of her brother’s car a few days later convinced her parents, for their daughter’s safety, to send her elsewhere.
It’s ironic that a few years later, in 1971, Charlotte’s court-ordered busing plan, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, was supported by white and black citizens and used as a contrast to the violent and racist response to school integration in Boston, the buses the stand-ins for the black children they carried.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s plan worked until 1999, when a judge who had opposed the original order ruled against using race in student assignment. Since then, schools have resegregated, a pattern repeated and reinforced across the country, reflecting neighborhoods that have also been slow to integrate.
Though studies have proven that diverse classrooms benefit all students, you would not know it from actions — not in 1957, but in 2019.
Schools with majority black and brown students are seen as “bad” by parents, studies show, even when their tests scores or facilities are superior to majority-white schools. Some majority-white communities have split from adjoining black-majority districts, taking students and resources with them. Just as white families didn’t have to move out of neighborhoods when black families moved in, “gentrifying” families who move into diverse areas — in a phenomenon seen in the North, South and all over — don’t have to opt out of sending their children to those neighborhood schools they could walk to.
In schools that are integrated, faculties often do not reflect the student body, suspensions are disproportionately doled out to black students for minor infractions their white classmates get a pass for, and it’s all too easy to spot who is and is not tagged for inclusion in gifted and talented programs.
As the Biden-Harris dustup revealed, there is little appetite for debating the value of an integrated and equitable education as the 2020 presidential race looms. Though few would take seriously the declaration of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that racism is in the past, proven by the election of the black president he opposed at every turn, it’s a comforting fairy tale for an America fatigued by the struggle, especially when it comes to your kid and your classroom.
But what is the cost, for the country and its children, of that benign neglect?
These days I think more and more of Ed Sanders, who went on to hire his next high school’s first black teacher in 1965. We stayed in touch until his death in 2010. The once reluctant leader told me integration was “the most sensible thing they ever did,” worth the hard work it takes to change behavior and attitudes.
But it’s much easier to blame a bus.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.