Resegregation in town that inspired 'Mockingbird'

June 03, 2008|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

The link to Harper Lee proved irresistible.

When journalists reported on a lawsuit alleging racism in a public school in my hometown, Monroeville, Ala., they pointed out that the town was the inspiration for Ms. Lee's iconic novel about small-town racism, To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in the 1930s and told through the eyes of a child, Scout, it's the tale of a courageous white lawyer who defends a black man unjustly convicted of rape.

The racial climate has improved significantly in the years since Ms. Lee published the novel in 1960. Many of Monroeville's residential neighborhoods are now integrated. So is the political hierarchy. The police chief is black.

But racial tensions and conflicts have not disappeared, not in small-town Alabama and not anywhere else in America. So it's hardly a shocking development when a group of black parents files a lawsuit claiming that their children are the victims of blatant racism, taunted by teachers and sent to the back of the (academic) bus.

The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleges, among other things, that teachers referred to black students using racial epithets, including the "n-word," and routinely suspended black kids for days at a time for minor infractions, including failure to tuck in their shirts. Classrooms are racially segregated, according to the lawsuit, by an academic-grouping system that shuts black children out of high-achieving groups.

The school system's attorney, Mark Boardman, was emphatic in denying the charges. "There is not a case of discrimination here," he said.

Mr. Boardman said that neither teachers nor administrators at Monroeville Junior High have directed racial epithets at students. He also said that the school has only two honors classes, which are offered to students who pass a standardized test. Both are math classes - pre-algebra and Algebra I - and both have a majority of black students, he said.

If there are a few all-black classrooms, that might be difficult to avoid. The school's enrollment is 78 percent black.

And in that one sad statistic lies the rest of the story about Monroeville's racial transformation: Yes, there are now black county commissioners and black city council members. But white parents have largely deserted the public schools. Though black children play alongside white children in a public swimming pool, few white children sit alongside black children in classrooms.

Following a national pattern, Monroeville schools have resegregated. In 2003, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University published a study showing that black and Latino students nationally are more isolated from their white counterparts than they were 30 years ago. The study cited several factors, including the persistence of segregated housing patterns. But researchers also blamed a U.S. Supreme Court that had given up on court-ordered desegregation plans.

When I graduated from Monroe County High School more than 30 years ago, the city's schools had achieved rough racial parity. I wouldn't argue that desegregation was wholly welcomed by whites; nor would I argue that it was seamless. But it was peaceful, supported by leading citizens. My former schoolmate, Patsy Black, a white school board member, said she, too, was surprised to find Monroeville schools resegregated when she and her husband returned to live there in 1995.

Neither the color of classmates nor the race of the teacher is the most important factor in a student's academic achievement. Nevertheless, diverse schools help to prepare students for diverse workplaces. Youngsters are unlikely to get a better opportunity to learn about people who look or sound a little different. Perhaps in a few generations, more Americans will embrace that idea.

Harper Lee gave us a time and place in which harsh reality was infused with hope. No wonder the book still resonates.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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