Magic Bus

The NAACP's education lawsuit promised to be a watershed case for poor and minority kids. So when exactly did the wheels come off?

Louisville, where the city and suburban public schools were integrated in 1975 by a federal court order, is Orfield's favorite example. "In the early days they connected school desegregation to Section 8 certificates," he explains. "Black families were taken out into white neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods were told that if they integrated, they would get a neighborhood school." The plan worked: Now, Orfield notes, "the institutions there that were initially violently opposed to a metro school district are fighting to keep it."

The Minneapolis deal is "a very modest start on what needed to be done," Orfield adds. "It's too bad that's all that's going to be done for all that effort....Some people say the Minnesota courts would have taken the suit very seriously."

Bearman says she, too, would have liked a settlement that went further. But, she adds, "the reality is that this is as good as it's going to get right now. At least we've got something."

Little concedes that he hasn't kept up on all the details of the settlement, but adds that from what he's heard it sounds "better than nothing." "If nothing else," he says, "it forces the suburban system to think about and make some kind of a move [toward desegregation]." And that, he maintains, will lay the groundwork for the day--he guesses about 2020--when even outlying suburbs have large minority populations: "It's like Joe Louis said: 'You can run, but you can't hide.'"

 

On the evening of April 24, Evelyn Eubanks was racing around her house like a dervish. She'd been trying to get her kids to pick up, put on clean clothes, and get into the car so they could all attend a special NAACP meeting at Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis. The membership was supposed to vote on the settlement, and chances were there would be fireworks.

An earlier meeting, held just days after the deal was announced, had dissolved into a shouting match: Half the members present demanded that the organization fire the Shulman firm and reject the proposal. It took a tie-breaking vote by the officer who chaired the meeting to fend off the rebellion.

Tonight, Eubanks figured, would be different. Chapter president Ricky Campbell, absent for months because of illnesses and other obligations, would be there, buttoned into a conservative suit and tie. So would the delegate from the NAACP's national office. And the audience would be packed with members who typically didn't show up for meetings, but who would make a special trip to support the deal.

She had been on the phone, checking to see whether any of her allies--other parents, perhaps some of the disillusioned plaintiffs--would attend. Virtually none of them were planning to come. (Reached a few days earlier, Dang Xiong, the lead plaintiff in the Shulmans' second suit, said he hadn't even heard t hat there was a settlement.) And so, midway through scrambling to make the 6:00 p.m. start time, Eubanks stopped dead in her tracks. "Why bother?" she remembers thinking.

As it turned out, things went pretty much the way Eubanks had guessed. The 100 people at Sabathani listened to an hour's worth of impassioned speeches, some from people who'd never appeared at NAACP meetings before. An elementary school tutor stood up and insisted that her young charges had asked her to come and plead for passage of the negotiated deal. Shulman and Almonor fielded questions. Officials pointed out that no matter how the vote turned out, the NAACP's national board would make the final decision.

As the evening wore on, people who had spoken against the deal in the past started to trickle out of the building. By the time the vote was taken, there were perhaps a dozen critics gathered in the parking lot. The settlement passed with 47 votes in favor, two opposed, and one abstention.

These days Eubanks considers the time she spent on the lawsuit pretty much wasted. When she first got involved, she says, she hoped that the case would address her basic concern that the district had given up on children of color. Perhaps, she figured then, it would push the schools in her neighborhood into adopting a challenging curriculum; guarantee that her kids could bring their textbooks home; and force a return to traditional letter-grade report cards. As it stands, she says, she'll be teaching her kids around the dining-room table for the foreseeable future.

Shulman says he sympathizes with Eubanks's and other parents' disappointment--but, he is quick to add, they may have been naive about what the case could deliver. "The problems are so intractable, the number of parents interacting with the district in an unsatisfactory way so high, you're going to hear dozens, even hundreds of perspectives on inadequacies," he says. "Folks who may support what the lawsuit is about may have an unrealistic expectation about what a lawsuit like this can deliver." At the very least, he says, people disappointed with the suit need to understand that the current settlement won't harm anyone.

Not true, Eubanks counters: In this case, half a loaf is actually worse than none. "He gave credibility to a failing system," she says, rushing to pack up the paper trail on her dining-room floor so she can get to a school-board meeting. Then she stops and smiles.

"John Shulman used us to validate his issues," she says. "But the school board used him to validate theirs."

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