- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007


When the U. S. Supreme Court announced its decree on the schools in the Seattle/Louisville matter, I wrote, with mixed feelings, to a friend:

“At least we all agree that it is intolerable that race should be a disadvantage to anyone; the quarrel is whether it should ever be an advantage, or at least a means to relieve a presumed disadvantage.

“My brain is of the conviction that race should never be a permissible category in the distribution of benefits and burdens; my heart tells me that the pretense of purist colorblindness can lead to an erosion of the distinct gains we’ve made (with some losses) since Brown.”

That’s the abstract and impersonal way we react to important Supreme Court decisions. But my thoughts ran back to 1971, when the court’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision obliged the school board in Greensboro, N.C. (where I was then living and writing) to abandon its “freedom of choice” plan and begin a massive cross-busing experiment.

That revolutionary change stirred turbulent cross-currents. It seemed to us our duty at the Greensboro Daily News (I was editorial page editor) was to support the school board, which faced a judicial mandate. The new policy, featuring extensive cross-busing, was unpopular with the board’s white constituency.

“Neighborhood schools” became the slogan du jour, but these Carolina school districts were not miniature Bostons, where the onus of racial experiment could be imposed on unfashionable parts of town. If the busing plan were to work, every school in the city had to share the pain, which meant having very nearly the same “racial balance.”

The difficulties of compliance with the court were made no easier to swallow by President Richard Nixon’s oratory against “busing,” which offered the unhappy parents of younger school-age children all the more reason to be angry over a policy they were helpless to dodge, reverse or modify.

But beyond all this there were, for me, two unusual personal dramas, one instigated by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger himself, who had signed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision for the court, which was then still trying to preserve the unanimity of the precedent Brown decisions of 1954 and 1955.

But he did grasp what it meant? My father, who seldom resorted to profanity in serious matters minced no words when he phoned early one morning while the schools controversy was on the boil.

“Sonny, did you see what that [expletive] Burger said?” he asked. It took me a moment to focus. Burger had fired a bench memorandum at the U.S. Middle District Court, which had jurisdiction over the Greensboro and neighboring Winston-Salem cases. Specifically, he had reprimanded Judge Eugene Gordon for allegedly exceeding the Charlotte-Mecklenburg precedent in a busing plan for the Winston-Salem-Forsyth schools.

Like Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Winston-Salem-Forsyth was a consolidated city-county system. Its plan called for transporting children countywide, including the Interstate-40 corridor that bisected the city of Winston-Salem.

It was evident Chief Justice Burger (not celebrated for acuteness) had failed to grasp the implications of the opinion he himself had signed.

It was conceivable Burger was echoing his patron, Richard Nixon, who had appointed him chief justice. But this suspicion hadn’t stirred my father’s anger.

Eugene Gordon, the judge Burger had publicly chastised, was a former student of my father’s, of whom he was deeply fond. And my father was nothing if not loyal. I don’t recall now whether my father urged me to write but write I did and not mildly about Burger’s impertinent intervention.

My colleague Jonathan Yardley, a close and conscientious student of the race question, had already written several stinging editorials about Nixon’s abdication of responsibility. Now Burger shared our editorial spotlight, and this did not further endear the Daily News’ editorial policies to readers who failed to see why we didn’t join Nixon and Burger and jeer from the sidelines at this madcap “social engineering.”

For me, moreover, there was another personal complexity. Our son Teddy had just turned school age. As a consequence of the cross-busing mandate, he became one of two white children in his class at Sternberger, our excellent neighborhood elementary school. It was not a segregated school. The freedom of choice policy (which offered free transportation to any children who wished to attend a school in which they would be in the minority) had given Sternberger a generous sprinkling of black children — admittedly, children of the city’s substantial black middle class.

At least Teddy stayed for the moment in the neighborhood, but that was not to last. He was in succeeding years to attend six elementary schools in seven terms (or was it seven in six years?). As elsewhere, the Greensboro school board struggled to meet a judicial mandate with arrangements that would not produce “white flight” in any sector of the city.

When for unrelated reasons we moved to Washington in 1975, and enrolled our son in a private school in Alexandria, the headmaster remarked cheerfully: “Your son is highly intelligent; the tests show that. But the lad appears to be innocent of English grammar.” How could he not be when he had been batted from school to school like a shuttlecock?

It is such memories that return when the court, again, upends the applecart of race policy — and by a precarious 5-4 decision.

You can put these recollections down as one man’s experience of how personal inclination and civic obligation collide. Greensboro was and is a public-spirited and sophisticated city, with a strong commitment to public education and an honorable history of racial amity — it was, for instance the site of the first (and successful) sit-ins. And the Greensboro school board had been committed to desegregation from May 18, 1954, when Edward Hudgins, as its lawyerly chairman, had pledged that the law would be obeyed. That was an exceptional pledge when many others in the South were silent or defiant, but the promise was kept through all the vicissitudes of the law.

So far as I am aware, none of us suffered permanent damage in that far-off “experiment noble in purpose,” though it would be years before our son recovered the scholastic equilibrium he had lost to a Supreme Court decision whose nominal author accepted no responsibility for its collateral effects.

In short, the categorical yes/no binary reactions to the court’s buffeting of schools and school boards has limited pertinence for people on the firing line.

As always, what the academics are pleased to call “public policy” is a mere simulacrum of reality.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., after leaving Greensboro, was associate editor of the Washington Star and later a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His novel about Freud and Henry James, “Lions at Lamb House,” will be published this fall.

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