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Thursday, 28 June, 2007

The decision in cases affecting schools in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle could imperil similar plans in hundreds of districts nationwide, and it leaves public school systems with a limited arsenal to maintain racial diversity. …

[The case] was led by parents challenging the way race is used to assign students to schools for the purpose of integration.

At age seven, I had nothing resembling political awareness. I was not aware of anyone else having something like this either. I knew areas were within the city in which I lived that we did not go. Until my teens I did not question this. My people lived many years in the area and did not know of Western Parkway, and never wandered into Shawnee Park. These rules were never written down, but they were strictly followed. Out in the poor-white suburbs, we traveled freely within our own world, places called Valley Station, Prairie Village, Fern Creek, but dare not venture into the land of the proper white man, places like Audubon Park, Cherokee Garden, Hurstbourne, or the neighborhoods with nicknames that made our mothers and aunts both giggle and tell the men not to say that.

4 September, 1975 would have been the day I entered second grade.

The Southern Baptist Convention and The Invisible Empire of Brotherhoods of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan rallied behind someone called Sue Connor, who evidently disappeared afterward, in order to fight what came to be known as “court-ordered busing.” We were making national headlines for all the wrong reasons. “Good” white people used the convenient excuse of locality. Children should spend their scholastic careers near their homes, and ignoring the double-digit mile commute many urban-placed white students faced. My people were more sincere. There was no good reason for our children to go to school with niggers. The more ambitious among our number spent their afternoons in eerily prescient “protest areas” on the grounds of the “County Schools”, euphemism for the white schools without regard to their location.

These groups became especially active during the long, hot summer leading up to the opening of schools in the Autumn of 1975. Klansmen and their fellow travelers lined the roads within a half-mile of each of the “county” high schools allegedly defending their right to make their presence known outside the protest areas but off campus. In my neighborhood, things got a little out of control. The signs reading “Honk of you oppose bussing” first appeared in front of Pleasure Ridge Park High School in August. The first rocks thrown at the cars who did not honk followed hours later. Eleven years later I would graduate from conveniently located PRP.

I remember distinctly, as my mother’s ’65 Chevrolet was out of inspection as it, at least, didn’t have a working horn. Businesses in those areas previously worried about teenage shoplifting, were now worried about their business drying up completely. My father, who was staying at the house during this time, exploited the controversy for an unusually easy commute. Very few people, without regard to their political orientation, drove in the vicinity of the schools from about one in the afternoon to about seven at night. Exactly why the Klansmen kept those hours remains unclear.

I can hear the protests of “where were the police?” from the young and the Texans among you. The police were there, in the protest areas, making coffee runs in their official cars with “Stop Forced Busing” stickers on the bumpers.

During 1974, the city and county school systems merged. That is, the “white” and “black” (“colored” had been in disuse for a very short time) public school systems merged in preparation for this day. Should I even bother explaining the conspicuous disparity between funding for the “City” schools and the “County” schools which drove this seemingly inevitable outcome? The rationale for the system was to coerce white students into black schools, and faced with that eventuality coercing an equalization of funding for schools in both systems … which, along the way, became one system.

The most conspicuous events occurred near the Brown Education Center, and Valley High School.

The original Brown Hotel was closed in 1971, having served as a flophouse for some twenty years. During the period of this controversy the building served as the centrally located headquarters of the City schools. Being Downtown and among the studios of major television stations and two blocks from the eighth largest newspaper in the nation by circulation, this location made for an especially appropriate place for protest. The primary purpose of the police at this time was to keep traffic along Broadway, the primary artery into the area, flowing. Their presence made for compelling and Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographs.

Valley High School was built of a standardized design out in the middle of nowhere to serve the impoverished rural communities south and west of Louisville in the 1930s. At that time four other identical buildings were erected. Regionally, it is regarded to this day as an extraordinary example of Depression-era architecture. When Frank Lloyd Wright traveled to Louisville in the 1950s to oversee a house of his design in the The Highlands neighborhood, it was the only structure he admired. VHS was built on the Salt River Highway at an intersection of an unimproved road serving nearby truck farms. As the area grew, the road became US 31W part of the Dixie Highway (1946) and Valley High School found itself along the primary artery into Jefferson County from points south. This area was the focus of intensive development of small, cheap homes from the 1950s, and was the primary destination for uneducated white flighters through the 1960s. Even if my parents were actually coming from nearby Indiana, they found a sociological home just south and west of Louisville.

During late August 1975, Valley High School hosted the largest contingent of Klansman Baptists. Commuters avoiding the area caused a major problem for both large employers and the traffic flow within the rest of the County. The police could not be compelled to intervene. The protesters took to throwing rocks, essentially at random and approaching motorists at what was then a traffic light at the corner in front of the High School. In desperation, the County approached Governor Carroll who activated the National Guard. However, in actual fact, troops from nearby Fort Knox were sent, well equipped to quiet the events.

I will state simply this event reached its apex August 31-Sept 2 when the protesters set US 31W ablaze and the Army faced off with Jefferson County Police for almost twenty-four hours. The H&S Hardware served as the army’s staging ground. The Woolco served as that of the cops. This was the first time I saw something I recognized from life on network television.

The Southern Baptist Convention exploited the phenomenon by opening more schools, and providing “scholarships” for white students. The Parochial school system did the same, opening new elementary schools in almost every neighborhood, and opening enrollment to non-Catholics for the first time.

Just before the opening of schools that year hooligans broke into the supposedly well guarded compound where the JCPS stored most of their buses, and served as their primary maintenance facility. Several newly acquired buses were destroyed completely. Insurance covered the loss and the buses were replaced with new units from nearby Indiana within days. This facility of quonset huts dating from World War II, although I never established why a war-time America needed quonset huts on the border of Louisville, Kentucky, also housed the system which processed textbooks and library books for the school system. My mother was at the beginning of her thirty years there. The rock throwing and the vandalism frightened her, but not enough to send me to school for the first two weeks. That was the massive protest. Students were kept away in droves, but only for the first two weeks. Those students, nearly everyone in my area, were questioned by men in cheap suits who were brought in to explain something to classes which went completely over my head. I also remember the representatives of the National Guard with M16s standing at attention near the entrance of Eisenhower Elementary School.

I feel obliged to note, at no time were there even rumors of black groups reacting in any way.

So much double talk and truthiness was in the air in those times, I could only make sense of it historically. For a city who tolerated inter-race marriage and was known as a safe city in a Slave state for free blacks before “the unpleasantness” , until the 1950s when something happened which opened a latent racism that persists today. It is difficult for me not to blame the Baby Boom generation, and the relative comfort of their upbringing.

What were the results of all this? Inter-race dating was controversial but tolerated in my day some ten years later. Ten years later still, the term “mixing” was common for the practice. An air of novelty with a flavor of “jungle fever” persisted. More non-white students went on to university, but more white students spoke like nineteenth century sharecroppers. Funding for schools focused upon a “magnet” system which happened to correspond to the schools attended by the “right families” while every other school was allowed to go to hell.

I’m told things have evened out considerably in the many years since I’ve lived in Jefferson County, Kentucky. Of course, they always said that. A greater number of students are moving on to out-of-state universities, they say, so that’s something. It should be noted that Louisville remains one of those places from where the best and brightest, and some others, move away at the first opportunity.

Anyway, that’s all over now. Separate but equal becomes the law again next year, under the veil of convenience.

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