Desegregation in Lowndes County
By LaShayla Waters
In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court declared "separate but equal" unconstitutional in federally funded institutions. The 1954 court decision sparked controversy all over the United States. The effect of this decision was most felt in the public school system. The desegregation of the public school system is perhaps the most famous and heated of all the controversies. We have all heard the horror stories surrounding desegregation. In some areas federal troops had to be sent in to protect black students from mobs of angry white students. Although Lowndes County School System had its share of problems, there were no significant incidents of violence.
Initially, Lowndes County Schools ignored the ruling of the Supreme Court and carried on as usual. In December of 1967, Marker Dern, a hearing examiner for the Department of Health Education and Welfare (HEW), recommended a $342,000 cut in federal funds to Lowndes County Schools for non-compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964; this prompted the Board to finally take action (Moore 5). Three months after Dern's recommendation, the Lowndes County School System placed its plan for desegregation, The Freedom of Choice Plan, in the Valdosta Daily Times. Later that month, HEW announced new guidelines for desegregation, which voided those set forth by the Board (Moore 8). In May of 1968, Lowndes County received yet another blow to their desegregation plan when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the use of freedom of choice plans if there were other reasonable options to achieve interrogation (Moore 10).
In July, Lowndes County still failed to meet the guidelines of HEW, and as a result received a $480,000 cut in funding (Moore 6). On July 11, Lowndes County as well as Bulloch and Lincoln Counties were sued by the Justice Department for failure to eliminate their dual school systems (Moore 12). Superintendent A.B. (Sonny) Martin and fellow board members George L. Moulton, L. M. Tomlinson, Donald Larus, Harley Hall, and Jerome Webb were named defendants in the case. The charges brought against them included unfair employment and appointment of teachers based on race, a sub-standard curriculum in black schools, and a bus system devised to prevent desegregation and several other violations of the Civil Rights Act (Rawls 2). Eventually, Martin and the other five defendants were found guilty of non-compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Moore 21). They were given 60 days to come up with a desegregation plan that met the requirements set forth by HEW, or the Court would implement its own desegregation plan into the school.
After deliberations with the community, the Board decided to consolidate the schools. At that time eight all white schools and four all black schools were operating in the county. The Board decided to close the four black schools and expand the predominately white schools (Moore 46). There was some controversy over the closing of all the predominately black schools; some members of the black community felt it was unfair for all the black children to be forced into white schools. But the opposition was not strong enough to bring about changes in the plan. The Board presented its plan for desegregation to Judge Bootle who eventually approved it with the conditions that it would be completed by September 1970. However, the Justice Department was not satisfied with Lowndes desegregation plan. Despite reservations, the Justice Department agreed to accept the plan provided two changes were made. First, all seniors at Westside High, a predominately black school, had to be moved to Lowndes High and the number of faculty crossovers for the 1969-1970 school year had to be specified. Lowndes agreed to the movement of the students at Westside High and proposed a five to one ratio of white to black teachers in each school (Moore 63). The county may have met its ratio, but the movement of faculty did not effect whites and blacks in the same way. According to Dr. Shirley Hardin, VSU's Director of African American Studies, African American teachers were more likely to receive demotions when they were moved to new schools. For example, many African American high school teachers became middle or even elementary school teachers in the integrated schools. Also the appointment of principals and other administrative positions were very heated topics.
Despite complications and opposition to integration, the 1969-year went by without major conflict. Lowndes' student government organizations welcomed and tried to include African Americans in activities. Although they were concerned with their ability to participate in sports and other extra-curricular events, many African Americans reported an overall positive experience at Lowndes Schools. This is not to say that everything was perfect. African-American students at Valdosta High walked out in October, and white members of Lowndes' girls basketball team refused to share a room with their African American teammate (Moore 134). But on the whole desegregation in Lowndes County was peaceful and should serve as an example that change can be accomplished without violence.
Hardin, Shirley. Personal Interview. 18 April 2000.
Moore, Patricia A. "A Case Study in Peaceful School Desegregation: Lowndes County, Georgia." Dissertation. Valdosta State U. 1997.
Rawls, M. "County Fights Suit Changing Bias." Valdosta Daily Times 26 July 1968: 2.