Now that Louisville’s periodic bouts of internecine conflict over student busing have again gone into remission, a new book considers our multi-generational effort to desegregate and maintain racial balance in the Jefferson County Public Schools.
In “From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky, 1954-2007,” Dr. Tracy E. K’Meyer, current chair of the History Department at the University of Louisville, has compiled an oral history that, she writes, “seeks to dislodge the story of school desegregation from the narrative of resistance and defeat by highlighting the voices of people working for and experiencing change within the schools.”
Interviews for the book were taken from five oral history projects conducted between 1973 and 2011, and are organized around the major revisions to student assignment plans. Interviews with teachers, students, parents and civil rights activists present a lively and, at times, complex portrait of our community.
“What really struck me is the large, broad-based community support for diversity in our schools,” says K’Meyer. “Louisville has worked far longer than anyone else in the South to maintain desgregated schools.”
Louisville was, in fact, the first southern city to embrace the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown ruling to desegregate public education. But by 1975, conflict followed a court order that required busing to achieve desegregation in the newly merged city and county school systems.
Accounts from African-Americans who experienced violence from white opponents of busing during that time are sobering. But perhaps less well-known was the support for school desegregation from many whites, which K’Meyer uncovered. When challenges to reduce diversity were mounted in 1984 and 1991, K’Meyer found changed attitudes and community-wide efforts to maintain hard-fought racial gains. “The public memory of those years is inadequate,” she says, “and these interviews fill in a historical gap.”
Also considered are African-American efforts to maintain Central High School’s historic role as a black institution, and the school district’s proactive response to the Supreme Court’s Meredith decision in 2007 that undermined racially balanced schools. By then, a survey found that more than 90 percent of parents supported racial diversity in the schools. While those who believe long-distance busing has been a failure have their say, some African-Americans speak with mixed emotions about the loss of neighborhood schools.
Although the intent of the book is not to weigh statistical measures of gains and losses, K’Meyer cites court evidence presented in 2007 that found social benefits from racially diverse schools. “The summary of 20 years of social research shows that outcomes are better in multi-racial schools,” she says. “Neighborhood schools are a disaster.”
K’Meyer, who grew up in New Jersey and earned advanced degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has put the interviews in a historical context that meets the needs of scholarship while creating an engaging narrative for general readers. Overall, she says, “If you change structural barriers (such as segregated schools), you change culture. School desgregation is better than any other alternative.”
K’Meyer considers “From Brown to Meredith” a companion to her history “Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980.” Both books are available from Carmichael’s Bookstore or online booksellers.