Across urban America, we have neighborhoods that are predominantly white or black, and the local schools are therefore corresponding mostly white or black. Segregation supports racism, and it is about time we fixed both.
To understand segregation, we need to understand how it came about. The commander of Union forces in the Civil War, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, was a champion of African-Americans throughout the war. President Lincoln advocated for abolition of slavery and signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
During the final days of the Civil War, in 1865, Grant and Lincoln met frequently to discuss what “freedom” should mean for those enslaved. Their plan included the right to own property, to vote, hold office, and have access to all schools, public transportation and commercial activities.
Five days after Lee surrendered to Grant, President Lincoln was assassinated. The Lincoln/Grant vision for the freed slaves died with the president.
During the postwar period, Lincoln’s replacement, Andrew Johnson, sided with the former Confederate states’ politicians to restrict equality for freed slaves. This, and other factors, led to the rise of Ku Klux Klan racism, threatening the lives and livelihood of all freed slaves.
For 100 years following the Civil War, segregation was one pillar of the Democratic Party platform. During presidential elections in the 1960s, candidate Gov. George Wallace is best remembered for his segregationist views, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially ended the 100-years of segregation; sort of. But even in passage, only 7 percent of the Democrats in Congress from the former Confederate states voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act.
Stop for a moment and imagine where this country could be today if the Grant/Lincoln plan had been implemented in 1865?
Racism in America begins with segregation, particularly segregated schools, and that is the exact point where we can fix racism — not from some top-down bureaucratic federal program, but rather from the bottom up.
Across this country, there are about 25,000 “intensively segregated schools,” defined as schools with at least 90 percent non-white students. Intensively segregated minority schools overwhelmingly tend to have lower performance and fewer educational opportunities.
Here is an innovative concept that can, in a generation, fix our schools and by extension fix racism from the bottom up.
Clinton, Mississippi, population about 25,000, has 5,300 students in the public schools. The racial breakdown is 54 percent black, 36 percent white, 6 percent Asian, 2 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent other.
In 1970 that district’s superintendent of schools, Virgil Belue, could see a complete lack of student integration. As outlined in a Wall Street Journal article last November, Belue implemented a plan that has been in place since 1971.
Belue assigned all kindergartners and first-graders to one school; that school would forever be K–first grade for the entire community. Grades 2 and 3 all attended a different school that would forever be grades 2 and 3 only. This concept continued, two grades per school, encompassing all the school facilities and all grades K-12.
While the students would transfer every two years to a different school facility, the integrated classes of students remained together, completely integrated, all day, every day, for 13 years. The downside, if it is one, is that it requires a little more busing.
So does it work?
According to 2018 Mississippi ranking data, Clinton High School is ranked No. 1 in the state in academics. It’s ranked No. 1 for the best teachers, No. 2 as a best place to teach and No. 4 as best school district. It has an overall “A” rating.
This is segregation/racism fixed from the bottom up. Could any school district do this? Yes, by applying a few different metrics depending on the student population.
The larger picture of Clinton, Mississippi, is that, after nearly 50 years, most of the adults were educated under the Virgil Belue model, resulting in a community that is integrated in mind and spirit.
This concept is about accountability at the point of execution. It is not about accountability of some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in Washington with billions of appropriated dollars to spend on a series of worthless political ideas about how to deal with education, segregation and racism.
This plan is simple, doable and Clinton, Mississippi, is proof of concept. School boards do not need permission, just make it happen.
“Busing” does not have to be a dirty word, a political football or a failed concept.
When applied evenly to every family, every student, in every school every day, it works.
Lt. Gen. Marvin L. Covault, U.S. Army (ret.) is the author of “Vision to Execution,” a book for leaders.