Marshall saw the hope of 1954 lessen with time

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 26, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The triumph of Thurgood Marshall was also his tragedy. At mid-century, when America had helped save the world and still imagined it could save itself, Marshall argued successfully for the racial integration of American public schools.

But, having lived four decades longer, he died wondering why in the world it wasn't working out.

The kind of desegregation he wanted, and America still claims to want, was a mere blip on the sociological radar screen. It lasted roughly a decade after Marshall's landmark 1954 Supreme Court victory and then it went away in a rush of white flight that ushered in decades of a new kind of segregation.

Remember how it was? Around here, the conservatives dug in angrily along the corridors like Eastern Avenue, and the liberals sneered at them while attending their all-day conferences on brotherhood.

The conservatives retrenched, packed their kids into parochial schools, assumed a neighborhood-siege mentality. The liberals left their brotherhood conferences and, while nobody was looking, moved to suburbia.

The kind of integration Marshall wanted was very simple: The schools should look like their communities and, ultimately, they should teach children how to get along with each other despite the color of their skin, and thus avoid the racial suspicions and antagonisms of their parents.

That the dream has not yet been fulfilled can be summed up with some simple arithmetic, which is Baltimore's mirror image of America:

In Baltimore City public schools, the black population is now 81 percent.

In Baltimore County public schools, the black population is about 20 percent but roughly one-third of it lies along the edgy Liberty Road corridor, where a lot of white county parents ask a question white city residents asked in the early days of school integration: Where can we move?

Only now, instead of considering Randallstown and Towson and Pikesville and Parkville the way their own parents did, they talk of Westminster and Columbia and Ellicott City. The Baltimore white exodus continues outward; perhaps everybody with white skin will ultimately meet everybody else with white skin coming from the opposite direction, somewhere along the Maryland-Pennsylvania line.

But what will they do once they get there? Circle the wagons and hide, or finally decide to try to work things out?

Nearly four decades after the court-ordered integration of schools, we're all still trying to figure out why it happened so briefly, and hopefully, and then crumbled.

In mid-century America, Marshall's Supreme Court victory seemed to summon up a conscience in the American spirit. Having saved the world for democracy abroad, we might now actually begin to practice it at home.

In retrospect, it seems naive for anyone to have imagined it wouldn't involve pain and awkwardness. But nobody imagined that, 39 years later, the schools would be in such troubling condition: academically shaky, physically dangerous, and miles from the Supreme Court's original intention of equal schooling for all.

Defensive whites will point to rising violence in schools, and with considerable evidence; but, in that brief first decade of integration, there was little violence but massive, breathless white flight anyway.

Blacks will point to this and say: You see? They never gave integration a chance. You want to understand our anger, look no farther than that.

And the gap increases, and the antagonism festers.

Thurgood Marshall, 84 years old at his death, remembered a Baltimore where children were separated strictly by skin color. But the schools are only a mirror of their communities. Just as Marshall carried angry memories of segregated Baltimore to his grave, he watched bitterly as a succession of modern presidents played the race card for political gain.

He died with a new man in Washington talking of the need to heal. But, four decades after the intended integration of schools, America is expecting no miracles.

No one can take away Marshall's triumph of 39 years ago, which was a simple statement of official fairness. The problem is: No one has yet found a way for the parents of black and white children to get along with each other, or to spend enough time with each other to try.

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