Bending Toward Justice: Federal appeals court rejects white school district in Alabama

Photo: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

In an opinion issued on Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit told the city of Gardendale, Ala. that it can’t secede from the Jefferson County school district and create a separate white school district.

It’s 2018, and we’re still grappling with white families seeking to create separate but unequal school districts for black families. Actually, it’s 2018, Donald Trump is president, and white nationalism is on the rise, which means there’s nothing surprising about this story.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Ten years later, the Jefferson County Board of Education hadn’t lifted a finger toward complying with the court’s directive that desegregation take place “with all deliberate speed.” So several families of black children in the school district sued.

In 1969, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which was split to create the Eleventh Circuit in 1980) ordered the “immediate merger” of all Jefferson County Board of Education “faculties and staff, transportation, services, athletics and other extracurricular activities” as well as the student bodies. A federal district court entered a desegregation order in 1970.

Immediately, four majority-white cities in Jefferson County withdrew from the school district and set up their own municipal school districts. Again, the Fifth Circuit intervened and rejected this effort to avoid the court’s orders.

The Fifth Circuit ordered the creation of a student assignment plan that “encompasses the entire Jefferson County School District as it stood at the time of the original filing of the desegregation suit.” Using language that reverberates today, the court wrote:

[W]here the formulation of splinter school districts, albeit validly created under state law, have the effect of thwarting the implementation of a unitary school system, the district court may not…recognize their creation.

The district court then entered a new desegregation order that remains in effect today. Nevertheless, cities continued to secede from Jefferson County schools, which had the effect of dramatically changing the demographics of the school district.

In 2000, county schools were approximately 75 percent white and 25 percent black. Today, those numbers are 43 percent white and 47 percent black. Schools in Gardendale are racially diverse despite the city’s overwhelming white population, because under the desegregation order, black students from other Jefferson County schools can transfer to schools in Gardendale.

Four white Gardendale parents created an organization to advocate for the city to secede from the Jefferson County school district. In meetings, on Facebook, and in flyers distributed in the city, these four white parents used every dog whistle you can imagine to explain why Gardendale needed its own school district: “the schools look different than our churches”; “we need better, local control”; “non-residents are draining resources”; other cities that didn’t secede “didn’t turn out well.”

New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones dove deep into the Gardendale secession movement for a story in the Times magazine.

Ultimately, the secession group convinced the city council to raise taxes for new schools and to secede from Jefferson County. But with the 1971 desegregation order still in place, it was Gardendale’s burden to seek the federal district court’s blessing for the secession.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that Gardendale city officials and leaders of the secession movement violated the Equal Protection Clause by acting based on racial animus and with the purpose of effecting racial discrimination in the schools. The appeals court held that the lower court:

…reasonably inferred that the secession leaders expressed “a desire to control the racial demographics of the four public schools in the city of Gardendale and the racial demographics of the city itself.” The district court also considered the “legislative [and] administrative history” of the secession proposals and reasonably inferred that the secession leaders translated their discriminatory purpose into official action. That is, the Gardendale Board and its superintendent devised secession plans that reflect the same desire to control the racial demographics of the public schools as had been expressed by the secession leaders.

The Eleventh Circuit also ruled that Gardendale’s secession would impede Jefferson County’s ongoing efforts to achieve full and meaningful desegregation of its schools.

The district court had allowed a partial secession to go forward, but the appeals court rejected that plan. Once the Eleventh Circuit found that city officials acted out of racial bias, and that their secession plan would impede the full implementation of the existing court desegregation order, Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit precedent demanded that the secession request be denied.

This is so, even if some Gardendale residents acted purely out of a desire for more local control. Nor can a district court allow a city to secede from a school district under a desegregation order because it fears the tension that will arise in the community. The Eleventh Circuit held:

The district court also erred when it speculated that the possible social tension caused by finding a constitutional violation would warrant allowing the violation to succeed in part. The district court stated that it had to consider the interests of students from North Smithfield who “may feel unwelcome in Gardendale schools” if it denied the motion to secede. But even if the plaintiffs had suggested — contrary to their litigating position — that such a concern was plausible, the history of school desegregation is rife with conflict. Indeed, if animosity alone could thwart constitutional imperatives, Brown II would have been in error. As the Supreme Court put it then, “the vitality of…constitutional principles cannot be allowed to yield simply because of disagreement with them.”

Well said, Eleventh Circuit. Well said.