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Progress still needed to combat segregation in our schools

Two Ceremonies, One Unfulfilled Mission



This past month two significant events in the Charleston area highlighted the degree to which racial progress has occurred in our city over the last 60 years. The first was a ceremony unveiling the statue of former federal judge J. Waites Waring, the key jurist in a Charleston case that would later become one of the school desegregation cases in the landmark Brown V. Board of Education decision. At that ceremony, attended by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and several prominent local lawyers, judges, and legislators, the community paid homage to the late judge who left the Holy City in the 1950s following a backlash from his then-unpopular rulings against segregation.

The second event was a ceremony welcoming back to James Simons Elementary two of the first African-American female students who desegregated the school in the late 1950s. While the two former students were welcomed with open arms during the recent ceremony, 50 years ago their arrival at the school was much more contentious. Emotions were high as the girls were escorted into the then all-white school in a scene very similar to James Meredith's desegregation of the University of Mississippi or the Little Rock Nine's desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Although federal troops were not required to enforce the desegregation of James Simons, the hostile reception left no doubt that the community was at that time staunchly against black students enrolling in the school.

Fast forward to the present day. Based on sentiments expressed at these two events, the Charleston community has come full circle. The judge once-reviled by many of his Holy City peers is now hailed posthumously as a Civil Rights hero. The two African-American alumnae of James Simons, once the victims of racial epithets and physical threats, are now recognized as courageous pioneers at a school which is much different than the one they attended. All credit should go to the organizers of both events for their efforts in recognizing these individuals.

Although such commemorative ceremonies cannot erase the wrongs which occurred generations ago, they serve to demonstrate that we are a different society now, one that recognizes many of its past mistakes.

That we pause to make these recognitions is noteworthy, and perhaps on some level they serve to absolve the collective conscience of our community for injustices inflicted during the time of segregation. Perhaps it is cathartic on some level that a community that once looked the other way when a federal judge was pilloried for challenging Jim Crow would now erect a statue in his honor. Along that same vein, it shows tremendous progress for a school district to honor the very women whom their separate-but-equal predecessors once ostracized.

But it may always be easier for subsequent generations to acknowledge the sins of their forebears than to make difficult changes during their own time. Even though we won these particular segregation battles, the Charleston County School District still maintains several segregated, low-performing schools. Of the district's 81 schools, 19 are comprised almost entirely of black students (the three most egregious being Mary Ford Elementary, C.C. Blaney Elementary, and Burke Middle High School), while two are almost entirely white (East Cooper Montessori and Sullivan's Island Elementary).

Segregation remains a way of life in many of our public schools, and the change needed to remedy this is very slow. It is an excellent sign of progress that we can honor those who were at the forefront of racial progress and societal change 50 years after the fact. It will be a much better day when we place an even greater focus on creating the necessary change in the present day to make our public schools truly diverse and excellent.

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