The last integrationist?

A Memphis attorney is using a 1963 desegregation lawsuit to block expansion of suburban schools and get a better deal for inner-city black students.

Published August 27, 2001 11:17PM (EDT)

On Aug. 30, 1963, Lee Winchester, the attorney for Shelby County, which includes Memphis but has a separate school system, filed a desegregation plan for county schools in response to a lawsuit by black students.

"Negro plaintiffs have wanted a plan. Here it is," Winchester said that day. "It calls for a complete integration of all schools by next fall -- all grades, all schools at once."

And sure enough, a year later, a Memphis Commercial Appeal headline read, "Racial Barriers Drop Smoothly: County Schools Open All 12 Grades to Negroes Without Incident." The story went on to detail how all of seven -- seven! -- black children had enrolled in previously all-white schools, and seven more had enrolled in an elementary school that had had six black kids the year before. (A federal court had ordered the desegregation of schools serving military institutions.) There were 45,000 students in the Shelby County schools that year.

Thirty-seven years after that "complete integration," school desegregation is an issue again in Shelby County -- perhaps "still" would be a better word -- only nowadays, it seems, the battle is not so much about race as it is about money.

Except for this: When you're talking about schools in the formerly segregated South, you never get very far from race.

This month Richard Fields, the attorney for the plaintiffs in Robinson et al. vs. Shelby County Board of Education -- the 1963 desegregation lawsuit filed by the NAACP that's still active and open -- said he would withhold approval of the county's plan to build a new high school in a mainly white, eastern area of the county far from the city limits in an attempt to halt what he calls "construction of a virtually all-white school system in eastern Shelby County."

The current court order in the case requires that the plaintiffs' lawyer and the Justice Department, which intervened in the suit in 1967, sign off on the construction of new schools. For two decades, that hasn't been a problem. There's been no denying the need for new schools in the county. The number of Shelby County residents who don't live in the city of Memphis has nearly doubled since 1980, from 130,757 to 247,372, according to census figures. Blacks make up 14.8 percent of the county's population, and 21.6 percent of school enrollment, according to figures cited by the Commercial Appeal.

"We actually have a more diverse system than Memphis schools," notes county schools communications director Mike Tebbe, and technically, he's right. Memphis city schools are more than 86 percent black, only 10 percent white.

So new school construction in the county has been a matter of rubber-stamp approval for as long as any of today's students have been alive. But early this month, attorney Fields sent a letter to Lee Winchester -- still the attorney for Shelby County schools after all these years -- saying he intended to block the county's construction of a $40 million high school in Arlington, at the eastern edge of the county, next to the old municipal airport.

"I cannot in good conscience approve any further school construction in the county without a reform of the antiquated funding system that denies city schools the operational funds needed to overcome the effects of racial segregation," Fields wrote, drawing a line in the sand that has provoked renewed debate about school funding and race in Tennessee.

Winchester, 77, calls Fields' claim "totally out of line." Asked to characterize the Shelby County school system, Winchester says, "I think it's totally integrated." The land for the new school has been acquired, but building funds have not been appropriated. If Fields blocks construction, the school district can appeal to the judge in the desegregation case for a hearing.

But civil rights advocates are applauding Fields' maneuver. "Rich's letter was part of his very skillful representation of his clients," says longtime civil rights attorney Louis Lucas, who first came to Memphis in 1967 as a Justice Department lawyer and later formed the South's first biracial law firm, "but it was also a political shot."

Fields admits that there are blacks in the Shelby County schools, but he says they tend to be concentrated in the incorporated towns of Bartlett, which abuts the city to the northeast, Millington, in the north county, and Collierville, in the southeast. And whatever integration there's been in the county, Fields insists, hasn't helped kids in city schools, where poverty is high, test scores are low, and some schools are almost completely African-American.

Two generations after Brown vs. Board of Education, Fields is fighting the toughest challenge facing education reformers today. Busing, integration and greater mobility for African-Americans hasn't changed the fact that low-income black children are still clustered in the nation's lowest-performing schools, mostly in declining inner cities. Fields is trying to make county residents of every race responsible to those left-behind inner-city kids, and he's grabbing the only weapon available to him -- stopping construction of a new county school -- to change the terms of the debate.

Richard Fields, 53, who has represented the plaintiffs in the Robinson case since 1982, does not look like a Memphis lawyer. Not for him the crisp white shirts, suspenders and tan summer suits of the characters who stock John Grisham's novels and walk the real-life hallways of the Bluff City's firms. The day I met Fields at one of those firms -- with which, as a sole practitioner, he sometimes works -- he wore a green-on-green flowered Hawaiian shirt, faded blue jeans and brown cowboy boots.

A big fellow with a generous midsection, Fields has a full white beard and flowing white hair that he ties back in a tiny ponytail. A native of Modesto, Calif., and a graduate of Stanford, he's acquired a light drawl since coming to Memphis in 1969, when he married a black woman in what he says was one of the first legal interracial marriages in Tennessee.

The Memphis Flyer, the local free weekly, has called him "the last integrationist," an appellation that, like many things, makes him laugh. "I think there are more integrationists than segregationists, believe it or not," he says.

"You cannot allow a segregated system to be implemented again," he says, pointing to the fact that "in Memphis, Tennessee, now, we have 100 percent black high schools, and you have the cycle of poverty."

The state has tried to equalize school spending between city and county by requiring that money raised by Shelby County schools be shared with the Memphis city schools -- because both districts operate in one county -- following a formula based on average daily enrollment. Memphis city schools have roughly two and a half times more students, so the city gets about 72 cents out of every dollar raised by the county. The city must use construction funds for construction, but even though new schools haven't been needed in Memphis, building improvements have been. It's only recently, for example, that all Memphis schools have had air-conditioning.

Another factor reducing conflict between the city and county over the years is the fact that Tennessee laws make it relatively easy for cities to annex surrounding unincorporated areas, and Memphis has pursued an aggressive annexing program to protect its tax base as many of its residents have moved to the suburbs. By annexing, the city can gain back population and, therefore, tax revenue. Many of the schools built in the county therefore became city schools eventually, serving Memphis' heavily black student population.

Fields was happy to approve county schools that would eventually be annexed into the city system, he says, but "now they're building in areas that are not going to be annexed, and there's very substantial developments being planned out in Shelby County. It looks like the reestablishment of the dual school system. So even though I approved the purchase of property for this new high school, I'm not going to approve the construction of the high school unless there's plans to have a desegregated student body."

In other words, what Fields is doing is using the Arlington school, which the county board says it needs to relieve overcrowding, as leverage to get a better deal for the overwhelmingly black and poor student population of the city schools.

"You've got to coordinate your housing plans with your school plans," he says. "Schools were always a function of housing. As we showed in the older [desegregation] cases, it was interstates, FHA policies, all of those things added to the segregated system. And then they just superimposed the segregated system on a segregated housing pattern, and that's what they're trying to do now."

The area in question is in eastern Shelby County, far from the city limits, and the common belief is that the population is overwhelmingly white. Tebbe, the county schools spokesman, insists that's a misconception. He says the district is projecting black enrollment in the new school "would probably be in the neighborhood of 15 percent. And I don't know that that's a 'virtually all-white school.' It is a pretty substantial minority population, and if you put in Asian, Hispanic, you're probably looking at minority enrollment that would be in the neighborhood of 17 or 18 percent."

"I don't know where they're getting those kids from," Fields counters, "unless they're changing some district lines and taking a bunch of kids from other schools, which will decrease [those schools'] black student enrollment."

Jim Rout, the mayor of Shelby County (Memphis, of course, has its own mayor), says Fields just has to be patient. "The Arlington area is predominantly white," he acknowledges. "But let me tell you this. The city of Memphis annexed an area about two and a half years ago called Hickory Hill, which used to be predominantly white. By the time they annexed it, it was probably getting to 40-60, 50-50 maybe." Rout says a similar demographic change is taking place in his own neighborhood, in the southeast county.

"My point is that more and more, according to the census of 2000 vs. 1990, more and more young, mobile African-American males and females and families are moving into the suburbs in our community," he says. "Now, we still have a huge inner-city problem, and we still have economics and education issues, certainly, but I am saying that, today he's right, but ... not only are white citizens moving to the suburbs, but because of greater job opportunities and career opportunities, many young African-American professionals and couples are moving to the suburbs. And I can take him to any suburb in this community and show him that."

The town of Arlington, population 2,569, is 74.2 percent white, 23 percent black, according to 2000 census figures. And in fact a quick drive through the area leaves the impression that it's not an all-white enclave. But Fields, by focusing on the proposed school, is really trying to put the spotlight on the problems in the city that Rout acknowledged.

"Now there's not the 'segregated system,'" Fields admits, "but there is." He points to low-performing all-black schools in Memphis city and says, "You have to give the kids an opportunity to escape that."

One way to improve conditions for Memphis schoolchildren, Fields says, is to change what he calls the "crazy formula" used to fund local schools. For instance, while the county is forced to share education funding with the city, any funds the county raises for school construction must be spent on construction in Memphis as well -- even if none is needed. Today Memphis schools urgently need money for operations and instruction, Fields says, but they can't spend money raised by the county -- which is constantly building new schools to accommodate its growth -- on what they need.

In a system known as "single-source funding," both city and county schools take money from the same revenue pot, but can spend it on what they need. Fields and many Memphis schools advocates back the arrangement.

"We've been having a long negotiation to try to get education onto a single-source funding," says Ernest Kelly, the attorney for the Memphis city school system, "where the county would pay all for the local funding for education." He says there's support from the Chamber of Commerce as well as various parties in both governments and both school systems for single-source funding of the two school districts. But there's also resistance from nearly all sides.

City residents are taxed twice -- for the city and for the county. As Fields sees it, county residents simply "aren't paying their fair share." Any plan to combine the districts would probably involve lowering taxes in the city and raising them in the county. That doesn't go over too well with county residents, who also don't want to be dragged into the same system as the city schools, which are perceived as underachieving. ("I think it's a bum rap," Kelly says, "because I think what we're suffering is primarily just statistics on poverty rather than poor teaching.")

On the other hand, as County Mayor Rout points out, the city government would likely balk at a single-source funding arrangement unless it could be reimbursed for millions of dollars in discretionary funds it's poured into city schools. The city school system could also simply surrender its charter, Rout says, which would force the county school system to absorb it, "but I don't know that the city school people would want to give up their positions."

"We've had a lot of negotiations where as long as people aren't talking about taxes and coming up with more money, that's fine. You know, we're all together in theory," Kelly says. "But when they start talking about taxing their constituents ..."

On top of the problem of who gets what funding is the fact that any way you slice it, there isn't enough of it. "The basic problem in Tennessee is that education is not funded to where it should be," Fields says.

The same week that Fields sent his letter to Winchester, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly overrode Republican Gov. Don Sundquist's veto of a budget that doesn't raise taxes, relies on tobacco settlement money to cover shortfalls and calls for $110 million in cuts statewide. The veto was claimed as a major victory by tax reformers, but it resulted in the state's bond rating being lowered and the opening of the school year being delayed in two rural school districts. It looks like widespread slashing of school programs and personnel is underway around the state.

"What the Legislature has done to gut the schools -- the secretary of state says, 'Tennessee is headed for the dark ages,'" says Lucas, the civil rights lawyer.

All those larger forces, Fields admits, are worsening the picture for city schools, and their problems won't be solved by blocking the construction of a single county school. A tireless advocate of thoroughgoing school reform, he gets animated talking about successful magnet schools and other innovations that have worked elsewhere, and he's convinced that Memphis-based companies like Federal Express and AutoZone have foundations eager to help with education dollars if the right deal can be struck.

"Test scores are so low in the inner city that we've got to have some sort of broader vision," he says. "So it's not tilting at windmills. All of these ideas are out there. They're being implemented in one fashion or another."

When I ask Lee Winchester if he ever thought, way back in 1963, that Robinson vs. Shelby County would still be an open case in 2001, he chuckles and says, "No, but we've had a pretty good success story of desegregation throughout that whole period of time. It hasn't been often, but each time that it's gone up [to court in a dispute], we've prevailed."

"I'm willing to listen to anything," Fields says when asked if anything short of total victory in the funding battle would result in him approving the school, "but I've worked with them for over four years now, with the County Commission, City Council, both boards of education, and they haven't come up with a solution yet."

Blocking the school in Arlington, Fields says, is the best way he knows to get new funding ideas discussed.

"I think it'll probably make everybody come to the table and work at the business of solving the problem," he says. "Usually these things settle -- but I never go into a case thinking I'm going to settle."

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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