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The Shame of the Nation

By Jonathan Kozol

One of the most disheartening experiences for those who grew up in the years when Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall were alive is to visit public schools today that bear their names, or names of other honored leaders of integration struggles that produced the temporary progress that took place in the three decades after Brown, and to find how many of these schools are bastions of contemporary segregation. It is even more disheartening when schools like these are not in segregated neighborhoods but in racially mixed areas in which integration of a public school would seem to be most natural and where, indeed, it takes a conscious effort on the part of parents or school officials in these districts to avoid the integration option that is often right at their front door.

In a Seattle neighborhood, for instance, where approximately half the families were Caucasian, 95 percent of students at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School were black, Hispanic, Native American, or of Asian origin. An African-American teacher at the school told me of seeing clusters of white parents and their children on the corner of a street close to the school each morning waiting for a bus that took the children to a school in which she believed that the enrollment was predominantly white. She did not speak of the white families waiting for the bus to take their children to another public school with bitterness, but wistfully.

"At Thurgood Marshall," according to a big wall-poster in the lobby of the school, "the dream is alive." But school assignment practices and federal court decisions that have countermanded long-established policies that previously fostered integration in Seattle's schools make the realization of the dream identified with Justice Marshall all but unattainable today.

"Thurgood Marshall must be turning over in his grave," one of the teachers at the school had told the principal, as he reported this to me. The principal, understandably, believed he had no choice but to reject the teacher's observation out of hand. "No, sister," he had told the teacher. "If Justice Marshall was still roamin' nowadays and saw what's goin' on here in this school, he would say 'Hallelujah' and 'Amen!'" Legal scholars may demur at this, but he had a school to run and he could not allow the ironies of names, or history, to undermine the passionate resolve he brought to winning victories for children in the only terms he was allowed.

In the course of two visits to the school, I had a chance to talk with a number of teachers and to spend time in their classrooms. In one class, a teacher had posted a brief summation of the Brown decision on the wall; but it was in an inconspicuous corner of the room and, with that one exception, I could find no references to Marshall's struggle against racial segregation in the building.

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