Six Moving Targets at Once: School Desegregation in DeKalb County, Georgia – Part VI: Students caught in the middle

I like you, Roger. You’re the one person in the county people hate more than they hate me.

- Robert R. Freeman, Superintendent, DeKalb County Schools [1]


The trial in July of 1987 to determine whether the DeKalb County School System (DCSS) had abolished its dual system of racially segregated schools included testimony from a witness with royal credentials. But hers was no Cinderella story.

Michelle Saunders, Redan’s first black homecoming queen, testified that after she won the 1987 Miss Redan High School pageant, a petition circulated around the school, demanding that her crown be taken away. Racial slurs appeared on the walls. The mood at the school was charged with tension. “When I walk in the door, I can feel the tension. I can feel it when I walk in the classroom. The main problem is the administration won’t address the problem,” Saunders testified.[2]

School officials denied that the situation was as bad as some of the witnesses’ statements indicated. Redan’s principal pointed out that Saunders had been elected homecoming queen by the majority-white senior class.[3] But clearly, the DCSS was concerned about the effects of racial tension. As it had done following the incidents at Columbia High School a decade earlier, the DCSS revised its discipline code to eliminate discretion in punishment and provide for uniform treatment of offenses.[4]

Critics charged that the system was not doing enough to reduce racial tensions. Suggestions that groups be set up to welcome transfer students were not acted upon, and recommendations for sensitivity training for teachers were never implemented. Meanwhile, black students in predominantly white schools tended to feel isolated and unwelcome. Little social interaction took place between students of different races. Unintended slights were often perceived as hostile gestures. Parents debated the value of the M-to-M program in terms of academic benefit versus social cost.[5]

DeKalb’s “Majority-to-Minority” (M-to-M) program allowed students who were members of the majority racial group at their home school to transfer to a school in which their group was in the minority. It had been the primary tool for school desegregation since it had been implemented in 1972. But it had taken several years to become effective due to inadequate notice of its availability, inadequate provision of transportation, and rules that created practical obstacles for families who wished to participate in the program. A 1976 federal court order had mandated changes in the program and had created a biracial committee to oversee the desegregation process. But now concerns were arising about the burden placed on children who spent hours on buses traveling to schools that held classes in trailers due to overcrowding. And there were continuing concerns about the program’s availability to those who wished to participate.

In February of 1988, the Biracial Committee recommended changes to be made in the brochures that explained the M-to-M program. Parents had been relying on word-of-mouth to decide where to send their children, and the most popular schools were becoming seriously overcrowded. In hopes of distributing children more evenly among the county’s schools, the committee recommended printing the number of available spaces at each school on the brochures.[6]

Some efforts to improve conditions at the schools were made more complicated by the court decisions. The swelling student population necessitated the use of trailers as temporary classrooms at many schools, and plans were being drawn up for the construction of new buildings. But due to the earlier ruling in the Redan II case, the DCSS was obligated to consider the desegregative effect of all its decisions concerning facilities. Requests for new trailers had to be approved by the Biracial Committee.[7]

In October of 1987, Superintendent Robert Freeman unveiled a six-year plan for reorganization of the county’s schools and construction of new facilities. The chief features of the plan included the construction of 11 new schools, the consolidation of high school attendance zones, and the creation of junior high schools (most of which would be housed in former high school facilities.)

Details of the consolidation plan concerned some parents. In some cases, high schools would be paired off, and one would be transformed into a junior high school that would feed the senior high. In other cases, a new junior high would be constructed within the attendance zone of an existing high school. This latter strategy seemed most often to be the employed if the high school was predominantly-black, virtually ensuring that the junior high school would be majority-black as well. Activist parents complained that black schools should be paired with white schools, to maximize the desegregative effect of the consolidation scheme. But the rapid changes in the county’s population complicated planning based on racial concerns.

Explaining the difficulty at a public meeting, Freeman acknowledged that a pairing of majority-black Avondale High School with majority-white Clarkston would result in a racially balanced student population today, but within a few years, both schools were predicted to be predominantly-black.[8]

Construction plans also raised some concerns. In 1990, plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the DCSS asked Judge O’Kelley to block construction of two new schools in rapidly-growing southeastern DeKalb until the resegregative effect of the new schools could be determined.[9]

The DCSS had been under instructions since the 1976 court order to assign teachers to all its schools in a manner that would reflect the racial composition of the county as a whole. With the District Court decision of 1988, however, it became evident that the disparate levels of teacher experience at the system’s schools would also have to be corrected.

In July of 1989, the DCSS conducted lotteries to select the veteran teachers that would be moved, then sent out letters to teachers at predominantly-black schools who had less than five years experience, asking if they would be willing to transfer to a predominantly-white school. Of the 140 veteran teachers selected, 114 reported to their new assignments. The remainder resigned or took early retirement.

Citizens complained about the loss to the school system that the resignations would bring and three teacher organizations filed suit to delay the transfers. But the new school year began without a hearing on the issue, and with the transfers accomplished, the issue became moot.[10]

By the mid-1980s, the leading spokesman for the plaintiffs on the ongoing court case was Roger Mills, the white parent of two black daughters enrolled in DeKalb schools. Mills had been involved with the suit since 1976, and was an outspoken advocate for aggressive means to accomplish the integration of the schools, including involuntary busing.

But opposition to this kind of drastic measure was growing among DeKalb’s African American community. In March of 1990, a group of black parents petitioned the court for permission to become plaintiffs. Claiming that the original plaintiffs cared more about racial quotas than quality education, the group argued that the interests of the parents of black schoolchildren in DeKalb were not being represented.[11]

In response to the introduction of the anti-busing parent group into the picture, the DeKalb chapter of the NAACP also sought to join the suit as plaintiffs. While the group had been involved with the case in a supportive role for years, its move now to become a party was seen by some as an effort to head off the kind of settlement that had occurred in Atlanta in 1973. According to a former attorney for the Atlanta office of the NAACP, the “Atlanta Compromise,” in which control of the school system was given to blacks in exchange for a promise not to institute mandatory busing, had been viewed with disfavor by the national office. The DeKalb NAACP would oppose desegregation plans that relied strictly on voluntary action.[12]

After a lengthy hearing in August of 1990, in which the merits of busing were explored at length and an official of the NAACP affirmed in open court her belief that the judge was racist, Judge O’Kelley handed down his ruling on the inclusion of new parties to the class action.[13] The group of anti-busing parents was allowed to join in the lawsuit. As to the NAACP, the judge held that they had failed to prove how their interests were not already being represented in the case. The group led by Roger Mills was allowed to remain a party as well. The judge praised Mills for his determined advocacy, but observed that he had a rather “paternalistic view” of his role.[14]

In February of 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the DCSS’s appeal of the 1989 Eleventh Circuit ruling.


In Part VII, as the DeKalb case moves towards the U.S. Supreme Court, the court further defines the limits of federal authority over desegregation.


[1] Watts, R. A. (1989, December 14). Desegregation plaintiff, parents tangle at meeting. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. G6.

[2] Green, C. (1987, July 23). Testimony ends in DeKalb school case. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. C5.

[3] Id.

[4] DeKalb code gets a make-over. (1989, February 18). The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. A22.

[5] Watts, R. A. (1989, January 8). School program’s reviews mixed: Majority-to minority transfers bring praise, criticism. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, p. Bl. See also Jackson. pp.62-119.

[6] White, B. (1988, February 25). Make the M-to-M brochures reflect school capacity, committee agrees. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, p. AS.

[7] White, B. (1987, November 12). School system jumps back into the temporary classroom market. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, p. A15.

[8] White, B. (1988, February 4). School plans draw a hard dose of criticism. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. AI.

[9] Watts, R. A. (1990, December 13). Plaintiffs seek to block 2 schools in S. DeKalb. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. A4.

[10] Watts, R. A. (1989, July 19). 3 teacher groups sue to delay transfers. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. C2. Watts, R. A. (1989, January 8). DeKalb set to shuffle teachers north, south. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. C3. Cowles, A. (1989, August 18). DeKalb’s teachers get settled: First day of school nears; resentment on lottery put aside. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. C1.

[11] Watts, R. A. (1990, April 5). School system lawyers query plaintiffs’ status in desegregation suit. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. A1.

[12] Watts, R. A. (1990, August 16). School uses hearing in fight over busing. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. A1.

[13] Watts, R. A. (1990, August 9). Judge eager for decision on desegregation case plaintiffs. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. D9. Watts, R. A. (1990, August 16). DeKalb NAACP official: Judge racist: Group trying to join desegregation suit. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. A1.

[14] Watts, R. A. (1990, December 22). Anti-busing parents will join school desegregation lawsuit: 18 DeKalb blacks to be added as plaintiffs. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p, A1.

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Six Moving Targets at Once: School Desegregation in DeKalb County, Georgia – Part V: DeKalb seeks an end to federal supervision

The courts have consistently recognized that a previously segregated dual school system does not automatically become desegregated just because a constitutionally acceptable plan is adopted and implemented

- 11th Circuit Court of Appeals [1]


The African American population in DeKalb County continued to grow throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and participation in the M-to-M program increased. The number of M-to-M students in the 1977-1978 school year was 534, but this number jumped to 1229 the following year. By 1981-1982, the number had topped 2000, and it passed the 4000 mark in 1986.[2]

Meanwhile, the white population in certain parts of the county continued to grow as well. Redan High School was operating in excess of its capacity by the 1978-1979 school year. By 1984-1985, the overflow, housed in trailers on the school grounds, numbered 808 students. The DeKalb County School System (DCSS) planned to build a new school in Redan’s district (known as Redan II) to house the 8th and 9th grade classes and alleviate some of the pressure.

In 1983, the plaintiffs in the class action suit filed a motion seeking to enjoin the DCSS from building a new facility. They alleged that the system was seeking to avoid assigning white students in Redan’s district to neighboring predominantly-black schools.[3]

This argument had a familiar ring. It had been alleged in the Swann case[4] that the Charlotte, North Carolina school district had furthered segregation by constructing new schools in all-black neighborhoods and then limiting enrollment to accommodate only the immediate area. In that 1971 case, the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered a massive busing program to effect integration across the district.

In Atlanta’s U.S. District Court, the ongoing case had been taken over in January of 1981 by Judge William C. O’Kelley. In his February 22, 1984 opinion, Judge O’Kelley found that the DCSS had been converted from a dual to a unitary system in 1969. Thus, the presumption that the existence of a single-race school was evidence of intent to discriminate no longer applied. Having failed to prove discriminatory intent, the plaintiffs could not prevail. [5]

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals saw things differently. In a strongly worded opinion dated March 22, 1985, the court held that only after a hearing could a finding be issued that a school system had become unitary. All interested parties must have notice and an opportunity to be heard before the withdrawal of court supervision. As to the Redan II plan, the court found that the DCSS had an affirmative duty to consider the impact upon the desegregation of the system in any building plans it made. If that impact was a tendency toward resegregation, the DCSS might be faced with an injunction to refrain from using the new facility (which was, by this time, under construction.)[6]

The Redan II episode offers perhaps the best example of the dramatic changes in population then occurring in DeKalb. By October of 1985, when Judge O’Kelley ruled again in the case, the Redan school district had a 40% black population. Clearly, opening Redan II (now renamed Miller Grove) would not have a resegregative effect and the school system was approved to go forward.[7]

In January of 1986, the DCSS filed a motion in District Court seeking a determination that the system had become unitary and an end to court supervision of the schools. The trial on the issue was held over three weeks in July of 1987. Testimony was heard which highlighted the inequities that remained in DeKalb’s schools. Teachers in majority-black schools had on average 4.9 years of experience, compared to 8.9 years in predominantly white schools. Fewer advanced placement courses were offered in majority-black schools, and per-pupil expenditures were lower in those schools.[8]

On June 30, 1988, Judge O’Kelley issued his ruling denying DeKalb’s motion. Holding that the system had fallen short in the areas of equalizing per-pupil expenditures, teacher experience, and minority representation among teachers and school administrators, the court nonetheless found that the system had satisfied other criteria for achieving unitary status. No longer would the court supervise the DCSS in the areas of student assignment, transportation, and extracurricular activities. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the DCSS should not be released from supervision in the area of student assignment.[9]

The Court of Appeals issued its opinion in October of 1989. The court held that the best approach for determining if a school system had achieved unitary status was to look at the six factors enunciated in the 1968 Green decision: student assignment, faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities.[10] If a system was in compliance in all six areas simultaneously for a period of at least three years, a District Court could find that it had eliminated all vestiges of its dual system. If not, the District Court must retain jurisdiction.[11]

The Eleventh Circuit was not the only appellate court that had ruled on this issue. In a similar 1987 case, the First Circuit adopted the same kind of incremental approach that Judge O’Kelley had used, and that the 11th Circuit had rejected.[12]

The DCSS decided to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping that the court would accept the case in order to reconcile the different rulings of the First and Eleventh circuits.

There was much at stake. Under the Eleventh Circuit ruling as it stood, the DCSS faced the burdensome obligation of overcoming any inequities caused by the dramatic demographic changes occurring within the county. By 1986, the black population in DeKalb schools had reached 47% and was continuing to grow.[13]

Along with changes in the population, came some new ideas about how to deal with the problem of inequality in the county’s schools.


In Part VI, activists and administrators grapple with changing circumstances, with students caught in the middle.


[1] Pitts v. Freeman, 755 F.2d 1423, 1426 (11th Cir. 1985).

[2] DeKaib County School System Majority-to-Minority (M-to-M) Program. (1997).

[3] Pitts v. Freeman, 755 F.2d 1423, 1425 (11th Cir. 1985).

[4] Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 at 28 (1971).

[5] Pitts v. Freeman, Civil Action No. 11946 (N.D.Ga., February 22,1984).

[6] Pitts v. Freeman, 755 F.2d 1423 (11th Cir. 1985).

[7] Woolner, A. (1985, November 1). DeKalb school system can use Redan II facility, U.S. judge says. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. A12

[8] Green, C. (1987, July 17). Witness cites racial gap in DeKalb system. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. p. A17.

[9] Pitts by Pitts v. Freeman, 887 F.2d 1438,1443-1444 (l1thCir.1989).

[10] Green v. County School Board of New Kent County Virginia, 391 U.S. 430 at 435 (1968).

[11] Pitts by Pitts v. Freeman, 887 F.2d 1438,1446 (11th Cir. 1989).

[12] Morgan v. Nucci, 831 F.2d 313 (1st Cir. 1987).

[13] Freeman v. Pitts, 503 U.S. 467, 476 (1992).

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Six Moving Targets at Once: School Desegregation in DeKalb County, Georgia – Part IV: Tensions rise

Most of the students who come in of the minority race have come in recently. They have swelled the population and the percentages of minority students, so naturally we are working with an achievement problem. The longer you are here the better you achieve.

- Dr. James H. Hinson, Superintendent, DeKalb County Schools[1]

 In February, 1975, Black History Week at Columbia High School was cancelled. Columbia, in the southwestern part of the county, was a school in transition from majority-white to majority-black due to demographic changes within its attendance zone. The African American students reacted strongly to the school administration’s action, first by staging a sit-down protest, then by marching from the school to the state capital. Students who participated in the march were suspended from school by the principal. A subsequent protest at the school led to 101 arrests. While ultimately all of the students were acquitted, efforts by black parents to have the charges dropped fell on deaf ears.[2]

Meanwhile, parents in the community organized a group – called Concerned Citizens – which began to lobby the school board for changes. They spearheaded the unsuccessful attempt to get the board to drop charges against the students arrested at Columbia and met with the school board to voice their complaints. Concerned Citizens would continue their involvement in the fight against discrimination in the DeKalb County School System (DCSS) for some time to come.[3]

In April, 1975, the school board’s policies led to a loss of federal funds at Columbia High School. The issue was not the handling of the protests, but rather the use of “tracking” – segregating students by level of academic ability – in a racially discriminatory fashion. School Superintendent James Hinson would later explain the problem.

You read a few years ago where we got a six hundred thousand dollar grant for providing compensatory education services to certain target schools undergoing racial transition. In order to participate in that program you had to be two years behind in your studies, two years below grade level. We tested all the students, we put the students in the classes, they turned out to be 85 to 90 percent minority students. Another unit of federal government comes in and says “You have racially identified the classes.” Those were the only ones eligible to be in the classes. They gave us the money under those terms and circumstances. So our Board had to say “Gentlemen, you may have your money back because you can’t dictate how we form the classes in our school system.”[4]

A settlement was finally reached with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in June of 1975, and DeKalb’s eligibility for the $516,000 federal grant was restored. The number of racially identifiable classes which a student attended could constitute no more than 25 percent of his or her school day. As part of the settlement, a new system-wide discipline code was to be written and approved by the OCR. Specific programs to relieve tensions at Columbia High School were to be reviewed by the OCR as well.[5]

That same month, the Concerned Citizens filed a motion in federal District Court charging that the DCSS was not adequately addressing the problem of racial discrimination as it was required to do under the June 12, 1969 court order. The group asked for two forms of relief: a broader implementation of the M-to-M program, including transportation provided by the DCSS, and an end to the gerrymandering of school attendance zones. A spokesman for the group stated that large-scale busing was not being sought, but if other means of integrating the schools failed, it would be considered as an option.[6]

In August of 1975, two days before registration for classes for the coming school year, the DCSS announced a change in its M-to-M policy. Students would now have to apply for the program at their neighborhood school and then would only be allowed to transfer to the “next closest school” to their home that had less than 40% minority students and also the capacity to receive new transfers. Once the principal at the neighborhood school had identified the “next closest school” which the student might attend, the parent had to apply at that school. No special provisions would be made to allow children in the same family to attend the same school, and acceptance to the program one year did nothing to guarantee a spot for the following year. The application process would have to be repeated annually for as long as the student wanted to continue in the program.[7]

Judge Edenfield again heard arguments on the various issues in the case, and in the end handed down a ruling which completely restructured the M-to-M program. In an order dated November 3, 1976, he required these guidelines be followed:

  • Students could transfer to any school in which their race was the minority. Short of denying space to previously enrolled students, space must be made available to transferees.
  • The application process was to be streamlined and simplified.
  • The program was to be publicized throughout the system.
  • Once admitted to the program, students would not be required to reapply every year, and would be guaranteed a spot in the school which they had been attending.
  • Transportation would be provided by the system.
  • These changes would be fully implemented for the start of the 1977-1978 school year.[8]

In addition, the November 3, 1976 order required that faculty assignments at the schools reflect the overall racial composition of the school district. Finally, a biracial committee was created to oversee the desegregation process.[9]

In 1979, the Biracial Committee applied to the federal court to revise the 1976 order. At that time, the DCSS’s African American population constituted 26% of the total number of students. Arguing that the M-to-M program was causing white flight, the committee requested a modification which would close a school to M-to-M transfers once the minority population in that school reached 26%. A hearing was held in April, and evidence regarding population migration was introduced.

However, in his order dated May 8, 1979, Judge Edenfield denied the request. Finding that there were no facts to support the claim that the M-to-M program had a caused white flight, he held that the November 3, 1976 order was still in force.

In addition, a minor modification sought by the plaintiffs was approved. The DCSS would be required to publish a brochure that would “enthusiastically encourage participation” in the M-to-M program.

In the final section of the order, the judge commended the efforts of the Biracial Committee in working towards an integrated school system, but recognizing that much remained to be done, encouraged an “all-out campaign to enroll black children as M-to M students in schools which have thus far achieved little integration.”[10]


In Part V, demographic changes in DeKalb accelerate as the school system seeks a way to end federal court supervision.


[1] Hinson, J. (1977, September). ‘Back to the basics’ in education. The Decatur-DeKalb News p.3F. From a speech delivered to the Rotary Club of Decatur.

[2] Jackson, B. B. (1995). The effects of the majority to minority (M to M) program on African American students who transfer to predominantly Caucasian schools. (Doctoral dissertation, Georgia State University). pp.14-15. Jackson does not identify the school, but as a student in the DCSS at the time, I remember the incident well.

[3] Id. p. 15

[4] Hinson speaking to the Rotary Club of Decatur. (See footnote 1.)

[5] Teasley, S. (1975, June 15). School system, OCR reach agreement on rights. The Decatur-DeKalb News. p. 7 A.

[6] Concerned citizens to file suit against schools. (1975, June 15). The Decatur-DeKalb News. p.7A.

[7] Jackson. pp. 15-16.

[8] Pitts v. Cherry, Civil Action No. 11946 (N.D.Ga., November 3, 1976).

[9] Id.

[10] Pitts v. Cherry, Civil Action No. 11946 (N.D.Ga., May 8, 1979).

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Six Moving Targets at Once: School Desegregation in DeKalb County, Georgia – Part III: Desegregation reexamined

All things being equal, with no history of discrimination, it might well be desirable to assign students to schools near their homes. But all things are not equal in a system that has been deliberately constructed and maintained to enforce racial segregation. The remedy for such segregation may be administratively awkward, inconvenient, and even bizarre in some situations and may impose burdens on some; but all awkwardness and inconvenience cannot be avoided in the interim period when remedial adjustments are being made to eliminate the dual school systems ….

- Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education [1]

As the DeKalb County School System began to comply with a 1969 federal court order to desegregate, the Supreme Court continued to hear cases that refined the mandate set forth in Brown v. Board of Education. [2]

The 1968 Supreme Court decision in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County Virginia had addressed the desegregation of a small school system. New Kent County had only two schools – each combined elementary and high schools – and there was no residential segregation within the county.[3]

But many school systems, like DeKalb’s, were larger, and their desegregation posed more complex problems. A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s would guide the lower court in evaluating efforts to desegregate metropolitan school districts.

The school system in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, had combined with that of the city of Charlotte in order to devise an effective desegregation plan, but the plan was not working. The combined system covered an area of 550 square miles, included 107 schools, and served 84,000 students. Most of the system’s African American students went to schools which were at least 99% black.

Dissatisfied with the school system’s efforts, the District Court judge hired a consultant to devise a new plan, which was then imposed by the court. Both the plaintiffs and the school system appealed, and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court.[4]

In what has come to be known as “the busing case,” the 1971 Swann decision reaffirmed the broad discretionary powers that the federal courts have in correcting discrimination in schools that had previously been segregated by law. Courts may consider the racial composition of the entire district and impose a quota determining the racial composition of each school. Attendance zones may be gerrymandered, and zones may be “paired” or “clustered” in order to bring students from different parts of the school district together in integrated schools. Courts may further require busing in order to achieve desegregation, as long as the travel required is not so arduous as to diminish the educational benefit.[5]

In addition to the ruling on remedies to government-mandated segregation, the Supreme Court spoke on an issue of great interest to school systems under court order – how to determine if a system has effectively achieved desegregation. In Swann, the court held that the mere existence of single-race schools in a previously segregated system is not proof that state-sanctioned discrimination still exists. However, the burden will be on the system to prove that some other cause, such as residential patterns, accounts for their existence.[6]

In cases involving constitutional rights, the distinction between government action and private action is important. Our civil rights and liberties and are protected under the Constitution against violation by the government. The federal courts, empowered under the Brown II decision to ensure the dismantling of state-mandated school segregation, had no authority over segregation that was the result of private choice.

In Keyes v. School District 1, the court addressed segregation in schools outside of the Deep South – where dual school systems had been required by law. The court made a distinction between de jure segregation – that which had been mandated by official state action, and de facto segregation – in which only private action was involved. Since private discrimination does not, by itself, amount to a violation of constitutional rights, the courts have no power to fashion a remedy in those cases. [7]

In Keyes, however, the Denver school system was found to have used gerrymandered attendance zones in order to segregate Hispanic students into one school. Although there had never been a law requiring segregated schools in Colorado, the court held that the action by school officials to segregate even one part of the system constituted a prima facie case of de jure segregation. In his opinion for the court, Justice Brennan noted that the record indicated that actions taken to segregate one school had an effect on all of the others in the district. [8]

The theme of repercussive effects was revisited in Millikan v. Bradley. The city of Detroit, Michigan had operated a system of de jure segregation within its schools. By the early 1970s, however, the city schools had become predominantly African American as whites had moved to the suburbs. In order to create a system of racially balanced schools, the District Court ordered that the school systems in the 53 surrounding suburban communities be involved in a massive busing plan.

The Supreme Court, however, held that the order could not be justified. If the suburban school systems had not committed a constitutional wrong, the federal courts had no authority to draw them into a mandated desegregation plan. Only if the de jure segregation in one system had caused an effect in a neighboring system could a remedy be ordered that would cross district lines. [9]

The four dissenting justices in Millikan pointed out that the school systems, both urban and suburban, are creatures of the state, which is responsible for guaranteeing Fourteenth Amendment rights. If it would be impossible to remedy segregation in the city school district without busing students across district lines, then it would be appropriate to consider this option.[10]

As part of the court’s supervision of the school system in Pasedena, California, racial quotas were imposed so that no school contained a majority of a group that did not represent a majority in the system as a whole. Because the area was undergoing rapid demographic changes due to the migration of different groups, the court had undertaken to make year-by-year adjustments in the racial composition of the schools.

The Supreme Court held, in Pasadena City Board of Education v. Spangler, that once the effects of de jure segregation had been remedied, later imbalances that were not caused by official action could not be corrected by the federal courts.[11]

The court’s decisions must have been received with some foreboding in DeKalb. The court had endorsed large-scale busing programs as a remedy to systemic desegregation, and had put the burden on school systems to disprove intent to discriminate. After Millikan, it did not appear that the court would act to remedy segregation in one school district caused by actions taken across district lines, but DeKalb might have made an interesting test case.

Unlike the school systems in suburban Detroit, DeKalb County’s had practiced de jure segregation. There was evidence that much of the white flight into central DeKalb was caused by the desegregation of Atlanta’s public schools.[12] These circumstances would arguably distinguish its demographic changes from those in Pasedena, and tie the DeKalb County School System to another system that could also be shown to have engaged in constitutional violations.

The picture that emerged from these court decisions did not provide a clear indication of what could be expected in DeKalb County. Meanwhile, the federal court order to desegregate remained in effect, and still the population of DeKalb County continued to grow.


In Part IV, tensions within DeKalb begin to rise, students and parents become activists, and the federal courts take a stronger role.


[1] Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 at 28 (1971).

[2] Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955).

[3] Green v. County School Board of New Kent County Virginia, 391 U.S. 430 at 435 (1968).

[4] Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 at 28 (1971).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Keyes v. School District 1,413 U.S. 189 (1973).

[8] Id.

[9] Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974).

[10] Id.

[11] Pasadena City Board of Education v. Spangler, 427 U.S. 424 (1976).

[12] Bayor, R. (1996). Desegregation and resegregation: Atlanta schools after 1954. In Race and the shaping of twentieth-century Atlanta. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

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Six Moving Targets at Once: School Desegregation in DeKalb County, Georgia – Part II: The federal court order

From 1822 to 1955 DeKalb has moved toward an adequate school program. It has joined with its neighbors in a statewide effort to improve education in Georgia and throughout the Southland. There is confidence as we face the task that lies ahead. However, there is an urgency as we plan for new buildings and new equipment, and additional teachers for the swelling school enrollments.

Our children cannot wait.  

- Author Unknown[1]

Some residents of DeKalb County felt that they had waited long enough. A decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decisions[2] mandating the desegregation of public schools, very little had changed in this suburban Atlanta community.

The DeKalb County School System (DCSS) had been operating a “dual system” of schools for its citizens at the time of the Brown decisions, and for many years, continued to do so. White children and “colored” children continued to attend separate schools in spite of the court’s instruction to desegregate. The system’s only response to Brown v. Board of Education was to institute a building program to upgrade the quality of schools designated for African Americans – in effect, finally complying with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which required “separate but equal” facilities.

It was only when legislation was passed affecting funding for schools that the DCSS acted to change its policy. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government the authority to withhold funds from school systems that did not cooperate with the courts in desegregation efforts. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 required systems to agree in writing to desegregation plans.[3]

In 1966, the DCSS instituted a “freedom of choice” plan, which allowed students to transfer, on a voluntary basis, to another school. A small number of African American students transferred to formerly all-white schools, but the majority of black students remained in all-black schools. In some cases, white students used the program to leave schools where blacks lived in the school’s attendance zone.[4]

In 1968, the Supreme Court handed down its first major school desegregation decision since Brown II [5]. In Green v. County School Board of New Kent County Virginia, the court found that providing for a “freedom of choice” plan was an inadequate measure where the plan failed to produce actual desegregation. School systems had an affirmative duty to eliminate racial discrimination.[6]

Six factors were set forth which would be used in later decisions for determining whether all vestiges of past discrimination had been eliminated. Reflecting general guidelines set forth in Brown II,[7] the Green factors were: student assignment, faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities.[8]

Because DeKalb’s “freedom of choice” plan was no more effective than the one in New Kent County had been, the DCSS was clearly facing a potential legal challenge. But events then occurred which may have moved things forward more quickly than anyone could have expected.

In May of 1968, a fight between white and black students at predominantly-white Cross Keys High School was large enough that the police were called to break it up. Several African American students were arrested, but no white students were taken into custody.

Within weeks, two sets of plaintiffs (black and white parents) filed a class action suit in federal court against the DCSS and its superintendent, James Cherry. Alleging violations of students’ Fourteenth Amendment rights, they sought also to avoid the loss of federal education funds if the system did not effectively desegregate.[9]

On June 12, 1969, U.S. District Court Judge Newell Edenfield issued an order requiring the DCSS to abolish its “freedom of choice” program and adopt a neighborhood school attendance plan that had been developed by the DCSS in cooperation with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The court retained jurisdiction over the case until desegregation of the DCSS could be effectuated.[10]

As a result of the June 12, 1969 order, the DCSS closed the remaining schools that had been built for “colored” students. At the time, African American students in DCSS schools numbered 4,876, or 5.9% of the total student population. All of these African Americans – except for 688 students at one elementary school – now attended majority-white schools.

But while the black population in DeKalb was small, it would grow rapidly in the coming years. By the 1974-1975 school year, the percentage of African American students enrolled in the DCSS stood at 15.1%. The number of majority-black schools increased correspondingly.[11]

As blacks moved into the southern and western portions of the county, the eastern region became the new home of migrating middle class whites. Fast-growing “white flight” developments in the areas near Stone Mountain compelled the DCSS to open a new high school on Redan Road in the mid- 1970s. Redan High School would play a prominent role in the desegregation battles to come.

In 1972, the DCSS started a program to further desegregation in the county. Called the Majority to Minority (M-to-M) program, it allowed students who were members of the majority race in their neighborhood school to transfer to a school in which their race was a minority group. The program was not well-publicized, and fewer than 30 students participated in the 1974-75 school year. Transportation costs were borne by the families of the students in the program. The M-to-M program would also figure prominently in the events to come as the school system continued to operate under a federal court order to desegregate.[12]

While DeKalb adjusted to judicial supervision and changing demographics, court decisions across the country would redefine school desegregation.


In Part III, federal courts outside of the Deep South create new rules that impact DeKalb’s efforts.


[1] The DeKalb School System (Undated). Document found in the vertical file “DeKalb Schools” at the Maud M. Burris Library in Decatur, Georgia.

[2] Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), and Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955).

[3] Jackson, B. B. (1995). The effects of the majority to minority (M to M) program on African American students who transfer to predominantly Caucasian schools. (Doctoral dissertation, Georgia State University). pp.4-7.

[4] Pitts by Pitts v. Freeman, 887 F.2d 1438 (11th Cir. 1989).

[5] Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), decided a year after the landmark case that outlawed segregated schools, gave federal courts the authority to oversee local desegregation efforts.

[6] Green v. County School Board of New Kent County Virginia, 391 U.S. 430 (1968).

[7] Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 at 300-301 (1955).

[8] Green v. County School Board of New Kent County Virginia, 391 U.S. 430 at 435 (1968).

[9] Jackson. p.9.

[10] Pitts v. Cherry, Civil Action No. 11946 (N.D.Ga., June 12, 1969).

[11] Jackson. pp. 10-11.

[12] Id. pp. 13-14


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Six Moving Targets at Once: School Desegregation in DeKalb County, Georgia – Part I: Brown v. Board of Education

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the races stamps the colored race with the badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

- Plessy v. Ferguson [1]

Segregation of the white and colored children in schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.

- Brown v. Board of Education [2]


Desegregation in DeKalb County’s schools did not come easily, or quickly. The largest school system in the state of Georgia labored for more than a quarter century to meet the sometimes conflicting demands of the federal government and the evolving concerns of the county’s citizens. But the story of its struggle, and that of the children it has endeavored to serve, provides a useful point of departure for an examination of the nature of equality and how Americans have tried to achieve it, and the forces of change that have driven the county forward over the last 60 years.

In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it was not only overturning a precedent that had stood for nearly 60 years, but it was redefining “equal protection of the laws,” guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, in a radically different way.

The decision was a victory for the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the NAACP, led by Thurgood Marshall. Marshall and his associates had been building the foundation for the court’s Brown decision for some 14 years, in a series of cases in which the “separate but equal” rule of Plessy was shown to be a hollow promise.

In perhaps the most important precedent to the Brown decision, the court in 1950 held that a separate law school for blacks only, hastily set up in Texas to accommodate a qualified black applicant to the University of Texas’s law school, was woefully inadequate. In addition to the considerable evidence that the new school’s facilities were not comparable to those of the all-white law school at the University of Texas, the court considered the intrinsic value of a degree from a respected institution. “Equality” was recognized to consist of more than physical amenities. [3]

Brown expanded on this notion of equality, but did so in a way that was rather novel for an American appellate court. In his opinion for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Earl Warren relied in part on historical interpretation and in part on modern psychological treatises to support his finding that discrimination in schooling diminished the quality of the education that could be obtained.

At the time the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, Warren observed, public education had been of relatively little concern to most Americans, but this set of circumstances had now changed. Obtaining adequate preparation in school for adult life may have a determinant effect upon one’s ability to participate fully in American society. At the same time, psychologists have developed a greater understanding of the detrimental effect that loss of status can have upon one’s ability to perform to the best of his or her ability. The court at the time Plessy was decided could not have taken these factors into consideration.

Acknowledging, then, the importance of education in the present day, and noting the improved understanding of the learning process afforded by modern psychology, Warren essentially ignored the reasoning of the Plessy decision in his opinion. As a result, “equal protection” in the public schools now had an entirely new meaning, not based on prior case law, whose full implications were yet to be imagined.[4]

Warren realized that the effects of the decision would be far-reaching, and understood that implementing a policy affecting all the nation’s schools was an enormous undertaking. The court asked that the parties in Brown return the following term to argue the conditions under which desegregation would occur.[5]

In the decision commonly known as Brown II, the court authorized the federal courts to oversee school desegregation efforts, and ordered that these take place “with all deliberate speed.”[6]

In setting out the conditions under which relief would be obtained, the court was intentionally vague. Citing the variety of local conditions, the court gave primary responsibility to the local school systems to correct the problems. The courts’ role would be to monitor their efforts and determine whether they were acting in good faith to comply with constitutional principles.[7]

While it is understandable that the court would decline to set down specific guidelines for solving a problem whose complexities were little understood, the decision left significant areas of uncertainty. Of particular interest to school systems involved in later litigation was the question of when and how court supervision could be terminated. In 1955, this was not a question of pressing importance either to the Supreme Court or to DeKalb County.

The desegregation of the nation’s school systems under the mandate set down in the Brown decisions was about to begin.


In Part II, DeKalb schools come under a federal court order


[1] Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 at 551 (1896).

[2] Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 at 494 (1954), quoting a finding of a Kansas court reported in 98 F. Supp. 797.

[3] Sweatt v. Painter, 399 U.S. 629 (1950).

[4] Brown, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

[5] Brown, 347 U.S. 483 at 495 (1954).

[6] Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 at 301 (1955).

[7] Id.

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Diversity is a fact of life – and an opportunity

On a schoolyard playground in Georgia, happy voices from around the world ring out. Children whose parents were born on different continents play together. Children whose forebears oppressed each other, colonized and exploited each other, fought revolutions and waged wars over whose sacraments to God were most favored, now kick soccer balls and hold hands and make friends without feeling the burden of that awful history.

People have done terrible things to one another and built walls to hold each other back for thousands of years. We are social creatures who thrive on community, and yet paradoxically we also create institutions to separate ourselves into factions and create enemies out of neighbors. Then we enshrine these institutions as cherished traditions.

Adults are charged with carrying on these traditions, but children are born free.

In DeKalb County, Georgia, the world has come to make its home in a profound and promising way. But DeKalb’s history makes it seem an unlikely site for a reunion of the family of man.

Located just east of Atlanta, for many generations DeKalb was dotted with small farms and small towns. Its unreconstructed majority-white population included many families whose roots extended back to Georgia’s pioneer days. On its eastern edge lies Stone Mountain, site of the 1915 rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan into the 20th century. But it was on the western edge of the county that the seeds of its modern character were planted. In 1912, Emory University was established in unincorporated DeKalb, just a few miles from Atlanta, and just north of Druid Hills, a suburban community for the well-to-do and an early outpost of the massive suburban expansion to come.

For the first half of the 20th century, DeKalb remained largely rural and majority-white. Then the post-war Sunbelt population explosion combined with white flight flooded the county with new suburban housing, businesses, and schools. Barely a generation passed before an African American migration into the county led to even greater residential development and ultimately to a majority-black population. DeKalb is now the second-most affluent county with a majority-black population in the United States.

But the most profound changes occurred in and around the city of Clarkston, in the center of the county. In the 1990s, the refugee resettlement program of the federal government identified the community as a suitable location for displaced persons from other countries seeking refuge in the United States. Today, Clarkston High School has students from more than 50 countries, and significant numbers of students from immigrant and refugee families attend nearby Tucker and Druid Hills high schools.

In 2002, the International Community School was founded near Clarkston to create (from its website) “a challenging, nurturing, and intentionally multi-ethnic environment” for a mixed international and American-born population. This charter school is open to all students eligible to attend schools in the DeKalb public school system. Under the terms of its charter half of its students are immigrant-refugees and half are U.S.-born.

The International Community School (ICS) is proactively addressing both the challenges and the possibilities of a multicultural American society. In spite of inadequate funding and outdated facilities, the fiercely committed faculty has created a laboratory of differentiated instruction in an environment that celebrates cultural differences while fostering community.

ICS is a shining example of idealism put into action. Its founders and leaders, faculty and families use phrases like “beloved community” to describe the school. The students tend to be less effusive – but that is perhaps the strongest proof of the success of the ICS experience. They take multiculturalism for granted. They find it is natural to have close friends and collaborators who come from greatly different cultural contexts. They take it for granted – but once they have left ICS and moved on to other schools, they begin to understand the unique and special nature of their experience.

Children are born free of the traditions and institutions that divide the human family into enemies. A multicultural education keeps that freedom alive.

But most of us do not have that opportunity.

ICS is located in the center of the Druid Hills High School (DHHS) attendance zone. That high school has five “feeder” elementary schools, most of which have a relatively homogenous ethnic composition, only one of which has a strongly international character. It is only when the students reach the middle school that serves the entire attendance zone that they begin to experience the true diversity of the people that make up this growing American community.

At least that is what some students experience. Many students seem to disappear on the way to high school.

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the percentage of children aged 0-17 years living within the current DHHS attendance zone is 56% white. But the white students at Druid Hills High School make up only 23%.

Where did all the white students go?

It is startling and a bit chilling to think that so many families would withdraw their children from a racially and ethnically diverse school environment, but the numbers suggest a massive migration out of the public schools once students reach middle or high school.

Moreover, there is a plan in the works to have even more drop off the map.

The plan is called “Together in Atlanta” and it calls for the annexation into the city of Atlanta of the Druid Hills neighborhood and the area around Emory. The land in question is the attendance zones of Fernbank and Briar Vista elementary schools – the portion of the DHHS attendance zone that is the most affluent and ethnically white (78% according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

This would remove students living in these areas from the DeKalb school system and transfer them to Atlanta Public Schools, where they would enroll along with students living in the contiguous Atlanta neighborhoods of Virginia-Highlands and Morningside – also largely white and affluent.

Diversity is a fact of life in the United States. It is certainly a fact of life in DeKalb County, Georgia. But it is more than that – it is an opportunity. Do we really want to turn back the clock towards the days of segregation?


In last week’s post on this blog, I described some of the history of the Druid Hills High School attendance zone and part of my personal journey in moving beyond my education in a largely segregated environment.

Next week, I will begin a series giving a brief history of DeKalb County’s journey through school desegregation under federal court order in the midst of massive demographic changes. From Brown v. Board of Education through Freeman v. Pitts, DeKalb was part of a national coming-to-terms with the unequal protection of the laws.


The graphics below were created and generously shared by Dr. Jeremy Diem, professor of Geography at Georgia State University.

Black population in DHHS zone
table - Race in DHHS zone
table - Race at DHHS

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