Which Path Will the UNC Board of Governors Follow? Why the Center for Civil Rights Must Be Saved
When I was growing up in Charlotte in the 1980s, Julius Chambers was a household name. His trailblazing work as a civil rights lawyer had an impact nationwide, but we felt a special connection to the work that he did in the city where he based his law firm. We had no way of knowing that the capstone of his distinguished career would be as founder and director of the UNC Law School’s Center for Civil Rights. But in my path through the public schools, his name was synonymous with the obligation to provide students of all races with a quality education.
In the third grade, my parents switched me to a public magnet program at Irwin Avenue Open Elementary. Piedmont Open Middle followed, and then West Charlotte High, where the open track fed in with other students who were assigned to that school. Mr. Chambers’ tradition of getting equal access and fair treatment touched every part of that trail. Irwin was housed in the old Harding High School, and as elementary students we were told how Dorothy Counts started the integration tradition in our halls when she climbed the front stairs through a mob of angry white students and parents to integrate the school in 1957, and endured near constant harassment inside the school. My parents talked about how Mr. Chambers continued the integration effort into the ‘70s at great personal danger, and I still remember that in the 8th grade, James Ferguson came to talk with my social studies class about Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, the Supreme Court case litigated by Mr. Ferguson, Adam Stein, Julius Chambers, and the Legal Defense Fund that required the Charlotte schools to integrate via busing. When I was in school, even the open magnet schools were well-integrated due to transportation and demographic requirements — not something you will see in many magnet programs today.
And of course Mr. Chambers’ efforts were famously palpable at West Charlotte High School, with the shared pride students held of the history and legacy of that school — its deep community connection as a Black school, which was then integrated when a few white families in the wealthy Myers Park neighborhood went to the school board and said essentially, “if this integration thing is going to work you are going to need to put some of us in a Black school, instead of it always being the other way around.” Now that particular bit of history, while important, should not turn the story of school integration in 1970s Charlotte to one of wealthy white heroes, for Julius Chambers, his cohort, and their supporters were the ones who worked to ensure that every kid in Charlotte had a shot at a good public school, and knew that racial integration was an essential part of that story. Graduates of West Charlotte High School feel a deep connection to the school and our fellow Lions — known and unknown — not out of some arrested development yearning for youth, but because even as teenagers, we knew we were part of something special, that imperfect as it was (and it was), the West Charlotte integration experiment changed and touched us in a way that made us better informed, better connected to our peers of all races. And that is a life-long gift. Julius Chambers touched my life, and the lives of every West Charlotte student of the busing era, by helping us see firsthand what happens when integration is fostered with serious intention. His work set an example for public school families everywhere about not just what was possible, but what it took to get there.
And yet, the largely successful desegregation of the Charlotte Mecklenburg schools is a part of Mr. Chambers’ service to this state and nation that has already been diminished. Integration by busing was tossed aside due to a lawsuit filed by a white family angry that their daughter was not admitted to the school of their choosing, and the schools have largely re-segregated, as they have all across the state of North Carolina. Today, we have students of color in school districts everywhere who are fighting for access to better schools — some in places where integration never really happened, and some in places where the school assignments most often leave these students short-changed. These communities are typically in their position because they lack the political power to influence decision makers, and lack the financial resources that allow them to mount a serious effort against county commissions and school districts. As has been said many times before, the Center for Civil Rights — funded by private donations, not tax dollars — is living out Julius Chambers’ legacy by helping these communities get the equal access they are promised by the law. But all that hangs in the balance with the new policy under consideration by the UNC Board of Governors.
Since the horrific spectacle in Charlottesville, upstanding citizens have been quick to distance themselves from the white supremacist groups associated with Heather Heyer’s death. But upstanding citizens have always been quick to distance themselves from groups deemed too crass, too distasteful, for “good” people to associate with. Hearken back to the Patriots of North Carolina, a group formed in the 1950s by some of North Carolina’s most prominent businessmen with the expressed purpose of maintaining segregation in our state’s schools. They found the violence of the Ku Klux Klan to be distasteful and gauche, but their fears of combining the races in the same institutions, namely public schools, were the same.* My husband’s great-grandfather was a Patriot, and he wrote “Integration in our public schools is something that shall not come to pass — ‘Patriots of North Carolina’ will be able to render great aid to our state and school officials.” These men were well-respected, loved by their families, and contributed to their communities. They were the sort of men who would be appointed to the UNC Board of Governors or Board of Trustees. For example, John W. Clark served on the Board of Trustees. His segregationist views made him popular in the General Assembly at the time, and after he tried to investigate students at UNC with pro-integration views, he won the most votes to be reappointed as trustee.
If the Board of Governors votes to end the work of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, closing one of the very few avenues for underserved communities to fight for quality schools, they will be eroding the tradition of Julius Chambers and reviving the tradition of the Patriots of North Carolina. I imagine that every member of the Board of Governors would say that all of our state’s children should be able to go to good public schools, so that they might have a shot at attending the great university system over which the Board presides. But espousing this desire has little meaning if at the same time they choose to dispose of one of the most important tools public school families have for getting that access. The Patriots of North Carolina also said they thought all of our children should have fine schools, just not black and white in the same ones. Is that the direction the Board of Governors intends to lead one of the most respected public Universities in the country in the year 2017?
A small minority of board members seems to feel passionately about wanting to destroy the work of the Civil Rights Center. Not every case the Center litigates is won but the victories do create difficulties to mostly white circles of power and wealth. These are insular circles that must be broken open if a system of fairness to all people in this state is ever to be attained. I imagine that there are many other members of the Board of Governors who sense this. I imagine many members recognize that their colleague’s crusade is wrong on both the facts and the merits, but are also telling themselves that somehow it will be taken care of. Somehow the Center will continue to do what it does, help the people it has always helped. Somehow the Board can pass this new policy and no one will suffer, it will just be different. This voice is heeded all the time in circles of power. We make excuses, we tell ourselves stories so that we don’t have to do anything differently, so that we take no risks.
If the University of North Carolina Law School is to be a leader for equity and equal opportunity, if our state is to offer a fair chance for every public-school kid, this proposal must be rejected. I don’t know if racial integration such as I experienced coming up in the Charlotte schools will ever be seen again, but I do know that every child having access to a quality public school education, regardless of race or income, is a value we all claim to share. The Board of Governors must show that they stand on the side of civil rights, on the side of justice, on the side of our schoolchildren, and on the side of the public university’s role in helping underserved communities access services they could never get without institutions like the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
I implore the members of the BOG to turn the tide and vote against this policy. A simple majority vote of conscience against what we know is wrong. Remember that it is much easier to destroy things than it is to build them. You stand now at a crossroads, where you can lead the University and the Law School on the path laid down by Chambers and others like him, or you can turn back down the road laid by the Patriots of North Carolina that was supposed to be left as a dead end. I urge the members of the UNC Board of Governors to take a risk, vote NO.
*For more on the Patriots, please see “Hiding In Plain Sight” in Scalawag Magazine, written by my husband, David L. Neal as an exploration into race, family, and history.