Reconsidering the Implementation of Brown v. Board of Education: Use of Social and Emotional Learning to Integrate School Systems by Julia Larimar

To: Superintendent of Muscogee County Schools

From: J. Sheree Larimar

Date: May 6, 2016

Re: Reconsidering the Implementation of Brown v. Board of Education: Use of Social and Emotional Learning to Integrate School Systems


It is unfair that too often in America a child’s zip code dictates their education opportunities because of a long history of segregation and unequal housing and schools.

While Brown v. Board of Education and Brown II, 1954 and 1956, declared de jure segregation illegal, schools have remained segregated due to de facto segregation. While litigation has generated court rulings that made illegal discriminatory practices, implementation of policies and programs that really diminish the effects of these discriminatory practices in education are faulty—for a multitude of reasons. Critical Race Theorist Derrick Bell posits that advocacy and litigation affected by international shame have been the primary techniques for prompting change in America’s school desegregation efforts.

As of 2010, most public school black students attended schools that were only twenty-nine percent white (Rothstein, 2013). In a country where cultural competency and high academic performance are markers of success, and schools are the mediums through which American children are socialized into their role as citizen, unequal education through racial segregation maintains a racial and social hierarchy.


Statement of Issues:

The Long and Litigous Fight for Desegregation

Columbus, Georgia has had a long history towards desegregating schools. I lean heavily on Virginia Causey’s “The Long and Winding Road: School Desegregation, Columbus, Georgia, 1963-1997.” This long history of working towards desegregating schools just to have them continue to be segregated more than half a century after the fact is unsatisfactory.

Similar to Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville, a white business elite controlled Columbus. They desired to maintain peaceful “progress” and this helped Columbus avoid the violent conflicts resulting from desegregation that Albany, Georgia and Macon, Georgia faced. Columbus differed from Atlanta in that there was not as much white flight occurring in the city. White flight usually occurs when more than 30 percent of the population in an area is black. In Columbus, for the longest of times, a white majority ruled the area. Because of this, we don’t see as much action in the fight for civil rights. Through looking at the fight for the desegregation in the Muscogee County School District, one can take away important lessons about how the black community felt during this time and can gauge the activity of the church in the fight for rights.

In 1963, black students staged a “read in” in the white public library that the school operated. After this event, the Muscogee Country School Board formed a special committee on desegregation. Superintendent Henry Shaw decided that integration was inevitable and stood firmly for integrating Columbus schools. When a white principal of one of the district schools did not want to allow black students into his school, Shaw did not yield and the man had to resign. Starting in 1964, the freedom of choice plan was put into effect in Columbus schools. However, the blacks of the area did not like this system because it placed an unfair burden on minority students who would not feel comfortable trying to integrate a school and therefore felt that this would prove an ineffective mode of integration. Superintendent Shaw wanted the integration of schools to be a gradual process so as not to injure students physically or emotionally as they adjusted to this new way of life.

The local NAACP chapter put pressure on the Muscogee County School District to speed up the desegregation of schools. In order to maintain control of the school board and avoid legal coercion, Shaw (who was also part of Columbus’s business elite) wanted to protect the economic and social life of Columbus. So he sped integration by the freedom of choice plan from one grade a year to two grades a year in hopes to appease the Columbus NAACP, without angering the white community too much.

In 1967 after U.S. vs. Jefferson County BOE, Muscogee County schools were required to operate under a “unitary” system and integrate faculties. In 1969, desegregation by use of student racial ratios and mandated crosstown busing was put into effect. Starting in 1970, students and teachers of both races were transferred throughout the district “so that the ratio of Negro to white teachers in each school [was] substantially the same as such ratio to the teachers in the entire school system (Causey, 2001).” The lower-class whites in the community were not too excited by this move and felt betrayed by the upper-class whites.

The required ratio of whites to blacks in each of the Columbus schools explains why there was not an immediate and quick episode of white flight in Columbus. The Muscogee County School District schools were all to be 30 percent black and 70 percent white. Therefore, instead of sending their children to private institutions, the white elite continued to send their children to the public schools in Columbus. That summer, 1971, tensions flared between blacks and whites, as students of both races became uncomfortable with the system in place. Blacks felt that whites were “coming and taking over their schools.” Many of the traditions at the previous predominately black schools were changed to make their white teachers more comfortable. Additionally, because whites did not know how to properly deal with or gauge the cultural education of their students, many white teachers had a hard time engaging with blacks students and vice versa. White students, especially those previously from the schools in upper-class white neighborhoods, felt that they were being dumbed down to accommodate black students.

In 1972, after a tense summer, a Columbus Chapter of the National Urban League was formed. The organization’s headquarters was first setup in Friendship Baptist Church but was later moved into the Commerce Building. A national requirement for all Urban Leagues is that half of the board has to be white. Therefore, taking the Urban League out of the church—still one of the most segregated spaces in the U.S.—and putting it into a commerce building made for a more official and comfortable environment. Mrs. Margaret Belch, who represented the local NAACP stated: “We felt that one thing that caused unrest was unemployment—people were frustrated because they were unable to take care of their responsibilities.” Reverend Johnny Flakes added on “The Urban League is an instrument through which all people can work for the betterment of the community—black and white, rich and poor.” They believed improvement of racial diversity in the workforce directly correlated with that of student achievement in school. So much of the problems that started in the schools flowed over into the workplace and beyond. Therefore, because of disciplinary action taken against blacks, white students feeling like they ‘lowered’ their learning level to that of blacks, and white teachers having lower expectations for black students, the whole of Columbus experienced a descent in morale for the desegregation of schools. Schools did not seem to provide the students with the proper education needed to succeed in the workplace and those in the workplace were not ready or happy about desegregation.

In 1979, the Klu Klux Klan scheduled a march through the black neighborhoods of Columbus. The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People marched in demonstration against the Klan, but the local People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) did not. Members of the black community were disappointed in PUSH for not demonstrating alongside NAACP. Local PUSH president Reverend Dr. William H. Howell stated: “If we must march let us march against the Klan mentally in government, industry and business…We need to march for a workable affirmative action plan, and for the full implementation of the desegregation plan in our school.”

In December of 1992, the Ministerial Alliance threatened a black boycott of white businesses if Columbus schools did not desegregate. The Chamber of Commerce, fearing the effects of this boycott, made an interracial committee to deal with the issues of desegregation. However, they were not effective in doing so. Columbus schools have resegregated since this time. Even to this day, schools remain racially unbalanced and academic expectations for students in predominately black schools in Columbus are lower than for those attending predominately white (Johnson, 2014). The business elites continue to hold control over Columbus. Even though complete white flight, like that seen in Atlanta, never really had to occur in Columbus—whites in the area have ensured that their children have access to an education that will keep the racial caste system in place.

There are ways that Muscogee School District can better work with the people of Columbus to ensure that all students are receiving a quality education.


As of 2014, eighteen percent of Muscogee County Public Schools are predominately white. Forty-five percent of Muscogee County Public Schools have a minority population that make up over 90% of the school’s student body. Every five years, there has been a decrease in the percentage of whites attending most Muscogee County Public Schools. Columbus High, a magnet school, is one of the few exceptions.

These finding of the schools are consistent with the changes in residential patterns within the county. Over the past half century, there has been a shift in where blacks and whites reside within Muscogee County. As shown by Figures 1-4, there has been a dispersion of white population throughout the county and a condensing of black population.

Fig 1

Figure 1: Population Density of 1960. (Left: White Population Density, Right: Black Population Density)

Fig 2

Figure 2: Population Density of 1980 (Left: White Population Density, Right: Black Population Density)

Fig 3

Figure 3: Population Density of 2000 (Left: White Population Density, Right: Black Population Density)

Fig 4

Figure 4: Population Density of 2014 (Left: White Population Density, Right: Black Population Density)


Toward Inclusion: Social Emotional Learning

Residential segregation is pervasive in our society. This being the case, many students have their first relatively intimate intergroup experience in schools (Schofield, 1991). Social relations between students in interracial schools may affect minority students’ academic achievement or later occupational success (Schofield, 1991), meaning they could have jobs where there are a higher percentage of whites or have a job that pays more than.

The problem associated with the study of the desegregation of schools was that it focused on outcomes rather than understanding of the social processes (Schofield, 1991). In a 1978 Journal of Negro Education, Harold Gerard wrote of his disillusionment with desegregation of schools and his disagreements with the evidence social psychologists presented to the Supreme Court in 1954 saying (1983, p. 875):

Social scientists were wrong in the belief that change would come easily…Simply mixing children in the classroom and trusting to benign human nature could never have done the trick…What I am questioning here are the assumptions underlying the belief that school desegregation, as implemented in the typical school district, will be an instrument to achieve [equal opportunity for all].

Gerard also argued that social scientists lost their credibility by trying to enter the political arena before they had hard data and were using only empty rhetoric (Gerard & Miller, 1975). Years later, we have data suggesting that emotional intelligence is beneficial in helping people function better in a world that is becoming increasingly diverse. Social emotional learning can be used to help students feel more comfortable in the classroom. Policymakers and government officials, in addition to business owners know that people benefit from the use of social emotional learning; diversity-training programs use SEL.

Policy Options:

Litigous and State Mandated Desegregation:

Litigation requires resources from community members in the form of money and time to get the courts to mandate an institution or group perform certain actions. As seen with the Brown decisions, faulty implementation of court mandates can still maintain unjust educational systems. Additionally, parents and other community members not in favor of such court mandates could pull their students out of the public schools if they have the resources. Fear of that which is different, and fights over resources, continue to make this method difficult to follow.

Implementing Social and Emotional Learning:

The emotional climate of a school district is typically the driver of engagement. Emotional intelligence is a high predictor of academic success, honor and satisfaction with school (Ivcevic & Brackett, 2014). Knowledge of how emotions influence perception, judgement, memory, thinking and behavior can help teachers cater more to their student’s needs. Teachers could move past sociallizng studetns to behave a certain way in the classroom, i.e. getting back on track and doing one’s work, to recognizng and regulating their emotions, i.e. understanding why they are upset and what emotions are motivating their behaviors and having the skills to alter them.

Through social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, school systems and communities can develop a better language for discussing issues that are controversial or difficult. In students who completed SEL progams the following benefits applied:

  • Improvement in students prosocial attitudes and behaviors
  • Better mental health
  • Improved academic performance

Much of this occurred due to improvement environment in which students were performing academic, social, or emotional tasks. RULER (Recognizing, Understanding, Labelling, Expressing, and Regulating Emotions) is the five emotional skills used by the most effective SEL program.

Brackett and Rivers posit implementation of a social and emotional learning program by starting with key stakeholders, superintendent and pricipals of schools, and working way down to studetns. As leaders of a school system or school, administrators can do much work in convincing others of the importance of emotions and how they enhance or derail experiences in their school everyday (Brackett & Rivers, 2013). Next teachers would go through the program and then teachers would administer the knowledge to students. Parents would also receive information concerning SEL. This system is important and effective because it requires every level of the school system to know and learn to utilize emotional recognition, understanding, and regulation skills.

Within a year of implementing RULER, a middle school expereinced higher end-of-year grades for students and higher competence in teachers. When compared with schools that did not implement RULER, RULER schools more warmth in the classroom, better relationships between teaachers and students, less bullying and more autonomy and leadership (Brackett & Rivers, 2013).

The only problem with this model is that it takes time and its effectiveness relies on how many trainings teachers/administrators attend and how well they understand the material.

Policy Recommendation:

We are in a world where it is increasingly important to be culturally competent. Competent people are those people who are able to “generate and coordinate flexible, adaptive responses to demands and to generate and capitalize on opportunities in the environment (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, Schellinger. 2011).” Use of SEL to help not just students but also parents and teachers become more culturally competent could create a school district that maximizes all students academic, social and emotional potential.

Developing an understanding of how emotions work and a language with which to discuss emotions could better help work towards a healthier racial climate in the county. SEL programs initially cost school systems a great deal but the long term benefits are the following: reduction in aggression, crime, drug use, and welfare needs and increases in academic acheivement (Brackett & Rivers, 2013). As race and class are directly correlated in America, these societal goods resulting from SEL programs would be a great addition to any commuity and could work towards alleviating concerns about having students work alongside folks not from their racial or class in-group.

Limitations and Further Research:

The limitations of such a policy is that it requries a school system to take responsibiltity for socializing students in a more direct way. This socializing process could still perpetuate racist or classist ideologies, even while it works towards makign students and faculty more self-aware.

Additionally, if parents are making economical decisions about the placement of their students, one would need to think about how to market SEL as a leadership and success program for those parents who are more wary of talking about race.


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