Viewpoint

I helped make desegregation in schools work once. We can do it again.

As CMS superintendent, Dr. William Self was a stabilizing force as CMS became the nation's first metropolitan school system to undergo massive desegregation.
As CMS superintendent, Dr. William Self was a stabilizing force as CMS became the nation's first metropolitan school system to undergo massive desegregation. 1972 Observer file photo

When I read in the March 18 Observer that “CMS is the most segregated district in NC” I was deeply saddened. I was part of the beleaguered but dedicated leadership team in 1971 who implemented the court-ordered desegregation plan brought about by the historic Swann v Board of Education decision. The majority of your readers will never know of the sacrifices that the staff, teachers, parents and students made to create the most desegregated urban school system in the country. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were a model for the nation.

It was not easy. We were given four months to have the faculty and the student body at each of approximately 90 schools reflect the 65 percent to 35 percent white to minority ratio of the total district population. Impossible! But we did it. A group of community leaders, administrators and parents, both black and white, drew up the plan that was accepted by the federal judge. Thousands of students and hundreds of teachers were reassigned from all-white and all-black schools. Elementary schools were reconfigured to grades 1-3 and 4-6. This necessitated redistributing books, supplies and furniture among all of the elementary schools. Two hundred additional buses were needed to be found from across the state. Many were in such bad shape they were towed to Charlotte. Many local mechanics refused to repair them.

In spite of many more complications, fear, hostility and even death threats, the school year began on time. That year our parents, teachers and administrators generally worked hard to implement the change. There were many problems, disagreements, even riots, but the overall attitude was “Let’s make it work.”

With continued commitment and tremendous effort it did work. CMS was not only recognized for its desegregation but also for its cutting-edge educational programs. Most of those pioneers are gone now but there was great pride in the accomplishments. Black students were given an opportunity for an equal education and white students were given the opportunity to experience diversity in a way never before possible. It was far from flawless. It helped create, however, an era of enlightened business and community leaders. Charlotte was less ghettoized than many other metropolitan areas. Many black leaders became our school board members, county commissioners and City Council persons and mayors. Charlotte was a symbol of the New South.

So I say our efforts were not in vain. It is my fervent hope that today’s community leaders will reexamine our school system and make positive changes toward a less segregated environment for our future citizens.

Hickman is a former assistant superintendent for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
  Comments