MAXWELL:  Reassessing the value of desegregation // AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL

7/12/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


To the approximately 600,000 NAACP faithful around the world, Julian Bond and Kweisi Mfume are the black “dynamic duo.”

Never before in its 89-year history has the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest and most venerable civil rights organization, had two such capable leaders in its two top positions at the same time.

Bond accepted the chairmanship of the board of directors in February. He replaced Myrlie Evers-Williams, who had served for two years. Mfume became president and chief executive in 1996, replacing Benjamin Chavis, who was ousted in scandal.

For the near future, each man will need to capitalize on the power of his good looks, charisma and exceptional intellect because, despite the NAACP’s good economic outlook, the organization is at a crossroads on several fronts, including trying to redefine its role in the wake of the nation’s new conservative mood.

Ironically, its most serious dilemma, which will surface this week in Atlanta, revolves around school desegregation, the concept that has defined the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund since 1954. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court _ with the NAACP representing black children _ outlawed separate-but-equal public school facilities in Brown vs. Board of Education.

Years later, in 1971, when the court ruled in Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that “forced busing” could be used to achieve racial balance in public schools, the NAACP believed that it had discovered the perfect tool for bringing whites and blacks together in the same schoolhouses. Most blacks and many white liberals believed that the education of black children would radically improve as a result of desegregation.

Until then in the South, black children had been victims of de jure and de facto segregation, which meant used books, slim budgets, few materials and resources and, of course, run-down buildings.

Today, nearly 45 years after Brown, some NAACP board members, many state and local directors, and rank-and-file members attending this week’s national convention, which began Friday and ends Thursday, argue that desegregation is no longer viable either as a political tactic or a social philosophy.

During the weeks leading up to last year’s annual convention in Pittsburgh, Evers-Williams promised that the organization would seriously debate whether it should continue to pursue the desegregation of public schools or redirect its efforts into improving the schools that the bulk of black children attend because of where they live.

She even told a New York Times reporter that she would consider a resolution to reverse the board’s traditional stance on desegregation. The day before voting delegates arrived in Pittsburgh, however, she reversed herself, saying the NAACP would never alter its position on integration in the schools.

Mfume joined Evers-Williams at the podium to calm delegates who had expected a forthright debate. He suggested that desegregation is a complex process that requires more than busing and mixing the races in the classroom. He said also that desegregation _ or real integration _ will occur when segregated housing patterns change and when gaps between the incomes of whites and blacks are closed.

“We can’t let ourselves be isolated from the real world,” he said. “If we’re separated, we can’t survive. I understand the lure of separatism. When people are ticked off, they dig in. They pull away from each other. They make generalizations about this group or that group. . . . Separatism doesn’t have a functional reality in our pluralistic world.”

Mfume and Bond, today’s NAACP leaders, must again sort out the group’s stance on desegregation and neighborhood schools. Although the two are not publicly talking about the issue in advance of the voting delegates’ arrival, as Evers-Williams did last year, conferees who support vouchers and charter schools are saying that they deserve and want some straight answers.

After all, recent surveys conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank, and other public opinion organizations show that most blacks nationwide support vouchers and neighborhood schools. They certainly are disenchanted with public schools.

Where does Bond, a former Georgia state representative, stand? Remember, he is a civil rights legend who, as a student at Morehouse College, led demonstrations to desegregate public places in Atlanta. And in 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee hired him as its first communications director.

“Generally among black Americans,” Bond said last year, “there is a feeling that (school integration) has come to naught, that so much energy has been put into it without commensurate results and that white America has been so resistant that you’re butting your head against the wall. I think that it’s a wrong attitude, but it’s an understandable attitude.”

Evers-Williams and Mfume shut down the desegregation debate in 1997. This time, though, pro-debate delegates have more ammunition on their side. Increasing numbers of federal judges, for example, are releasing school districts from desegregation orders. Here in Florida, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties soon expect to receive “unitary” status.

A unitary district is either one that never practiced racial segregation or one that, through good faith compliance with court orders, has remedied _ to the extent practicable _ the vestiges of such discrimination.

While judges are preparing to declare districts unitary, more systems nationwide are establishing charter schools and voucher programs each semester. These trends show no signs of slowing down.

At this year’s convention, the group’s 89th, the dynamic duo will need to pull out all the stops to silence rank-and-file conferees _ most them parents _ who want to publicly re-evaluate the viability of school desegregation. Sooner or later, the NAACP’s top brass must let a real debate take place. Sooner is better than later, many delegates are saying.