and Frederick Douglass were, in most respects, similar to that of Booker T. Washington.
Atlanta schools were desegregated in 1961. But it took many more years to achieve any meaningful desegregation of the schools, and that was soon lost as White parents moved their children out of the city or placed them in private schools. The only possible way to have meaningful desegregation would be crosstown or cross jurisdictional busing. Most Whites and some Blacks, however, opposed this solution. Recognizing the futility of the matter, and with the sanction of the courts, Black and White leaders forged what became known as “the Atlanta Compromise” in 1973. In exchange for a cessation of pressures for busing, Blacks would be given administrative control of the now mostly Black school system. The Blacks believed that with the empathy and control of resources which a Black-run school system would have, that they could provide a better education for their children.
There was much promise in 1973, the venerable former Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays was elected president of the Atlanta school board and Alonzo Crim of Chicago became the school system’s first Black superintendent. Crim had a five-year plan for marked improvements, particularly on test scores, for the Atlanta schools. He set out to prove that disadvantaged Black children could learn — and learn well. But the pattern of low test scores from most of the students in the disadvantaged neighborhoods continued under his leadership and all who followed him.
While there has always been friction on the Atlanta School Board, the egotism which led to the recent fractions and factions is unparalleled. In the crisis the geographical and racial divides that have always existed in the city have appeared. With the probationary accreditation, some northside White parents have reportedly threatened to withdraw their children, while the only protests against the probation have come from a few Blacks. Also, a group of Black leaders led by the venerable Rev. Joseph Lowery have asked the Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to not put any teachers in jail.
Until accreditation was threatened, attendance at Atlanta School Board meetings was sparse and there was little public outcry, except in the media, about the school system’s cheating scandal and the board in-fighting. Since most White children in the city do not attend the public schools, as well as many upper- income Black children, there has not been a strong public voice in support of the schools for at least the past four decades. Without such a voice and without substantial improvements in the socio-economic conditions of disadvantaged communities, the public schools in Atlanta and most urban communities have a steep uphill climb. However a united, committed and visionary board of education and superintendent are a prerequisite in the quest for the quality education that the Black communities have always sought.
Alton Hornsby Jr. is Fuller E. Callaway Professor of History (Retired), Morehouse College. He has written on the history of Black education in Atlanta in his books, A Short History of Black Atlanta and Black Power in Dixie: A Political History of African Americans in Atlanta.