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WE CAN DO IT

A Community Takes on the Challenge of School Desegregation

We Can Do It: A Community Takes on the Challenge of School Desegregation
This book tells of the challenges faced by white and black school administrators, teachers, parents, and students as Alachua County, Florida, moved from segregated schools to a single, unitary school system.

After Brown v. Board of Education, the South’s separate white and black schools continued under lower court opinions provided black students could choose to go to white schools. Not until 1968 did the NAACP Legal Defense Fund convince the Supreme Court to end dual school systems. Almost fifty years later, African Americans in Alachua County remain divided over that outcome.

A unique study including extensive interviews, We Can Do It asks important questions, among them: How did both races, without precedent, work together to create desegregated schools? What conflicts arose, and how were they resolved (or not)? How was the community affected? And at a time when resegregation and persistent white-black achievement gaps continue to challenge public schools, what lessons can we learn from the generation that desegregated our schools?

“The civil rights warriors knew how to knock doors down, but they had no way of preparing the beneficiaries for what awaited them on the other side.”

Alfred Dennis Mathewson

Author Q & A

Michael Gengler, authorQ: Mike, tell us a little about yourself and your family.

A. My family is from the Milwaukee area.  I was born there but we moved to Florida in 1956 after I completed sixth grade.  My father was a CPA and my mom had a masters degree in social work.  She was a competitive swimmer and was on the equestrian team at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  I had no siblings.

We frequently vacationed in Florida and we all loved the outdoors.  The move gave us many more months of outdoor activities, fishing, swimming, body surfing, camping trips out West, and later for me, lots of tennis.  My parents were very liberal, although not outspokenly so.  They got me to read Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw, and lots of other stuff that no one reads anymore, probably.

In Gainesville, my father was vice president of a locally owned department store.  Living in a white bread suburb of Milwaukee, none of us had ever dealt with other races.  Soon after arriving in Gainesville, both of my parents sat me down for probably the only such discussion the family ever had.  They told me that I was never, ever to discuss race, with anyone.  I did not know it at the time, but I’m sure that the word was passed to my father from the owners of the department store.  They were Massachusetts transplants.  As businessmen, they had to make a living in Gainesville and could not be identified with either side of the racial divide.  My father had to play by those rules, and so did his family.

As a student in the Alachua County public schools, I was in many classes that today might be called advanced placement, but then were simply advanced or accelerated tracks.  I was a smart kid and got high grades and test scores.  I was editor of the Gainesville High School paper, the Hurricane Herald.  I enjoyed high school.  My parents did not guide my college choices but told me that I should go where I wanted to and not to consider cost, because they would pay for it.  My father, having experienced the business climate in both the North and the South (remember, we are speaking of the late 50s and early 60s), did encourage me to plan my career in the North.  Personally, I found the very Southern atmosphere in Gainesville confining, and chose to go to Columbia in New York City.  My plan was to get a Ph.D. and to become a print journalist.  My Gainesville High School education prepared me well for academics at a top-level college.  I will always be grateful to my teachers and the Alachua County public school system.

At Columbia, I joined the Columbia Daily Spectator and eventually made the very competitive seven-man Managing Board.  Many Spec graduates went to work directly after college for such publications as the Wall Street Journal or Newsweek.  However, along the way, I decided to go to law school rather than pursue a Ph.D. and journalism.  I majored in American history and graduated in 1966.  I then attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 1969.  I completed my military obligation as an Air Force lawyer, mostly working on Government contracts, and in 1974 I moved back to Boston and began my corporate law career, which also included eleven years in Chicago.

I often say that I did not become a Southerner until I walked onto the Columbia campus.  While I was in Gainesville, I never realized the worth of what the South did have; I was too preoccupied with what it did not have.  I soon found myself defending the South, as I have ever since.  I so treasure the experiences that I had in Gainesville, the people I knew, their values, their sense of honor, and all that I learned about dealing with others.  I believe I have held to those values throughout my life, in many different, sometimes very trying situations.  Those values don’t equate to liberalism or conservatism, but to an essential humanism and respect and love for one’s neighbors.

For some, these values derive from the Christian religion.  My parents were not religious, nor am I.  Our family background is Roman Catholic.  A lesson I have learned is that we need to respect the role that religion plays for so many Southerners, and Americans, of all races.

Q. So, you became a corporate lawyer.  That is a very unlikely background for an author.  What made you decide to write “We Can Do It?”

A. The Alachua County schools (and almost all other Florida schools) were still segregated when I was attending, as was the University of Florida.  I graduated from GHS in 1962, eight years after Brown v. Board of Education.  It was clear from events in other states that school desegregation presented a whole complex of issues that could at the least be very hard to solve, and at worst could flare into violence.

At the Hurricane Herald, we did a student survey, one question of which was, Are you in favor of school desegregation.  In my classes, although segregation was never discussed, most of us held liberal views (Alachua County remains a blue county in a sea of red in North Florida).  We expected, and certainly hoped, that a majority of GHS students would be in favor of desegregation, and that might nudge the powers that be toward voluntary desegregation.  The result came back about 62% against.  We did not publish that result.  The principal, William S. Talbot, whom you will meet in the book, told me, “Mike, my shoulders are big and broad, and I can handle what is coming.  But I’m just not ready.”

When desegregation came, I was away in college, law school, and the Air Force.  I was not even aware of the very serious problems that arose in Gainesville.  Much later, probably around 2006, driving down to Gainesville from the Jacksonville airport, I had on the public radio station and heard an interview in which a black spokesman told of the very negative impacts of the closing of Gainesville’s black high school, Lincoln.  As a youth, watching the Lincoln High School band marching in the University of Florida homecoming parade, I did not see proud black kids having the time of their life and learning to become future leaders, I saw a legal and moral outrage.  I realized then that school desegregation presented very complicated issues that I had not understood in the least.

Later, around 2012, I wanted to have more control over my life and not be held to court schedules.  I was doing family law cases for the legal services corporation in Madison, Wisconsin.  I spoke to a number of people about the possibility of a book about school desegregation in Gainesville and found moral support both from the then-school superintendent, Dan Boyd, from the Rev. Thomas A. Wright, the father of a named plaintiff in the Alachua County court case, and others.

The basic motivation for the project was my desire simply to get the facts straight.  Even during desegregation, many if not most people in Alachua County did not understand what was happening, especially in the federal court case filed in 1964 to desegregate the county schools.  The Gainesville Sun newspaper ran excellent, daily coverage.  For whatever reason, misunderstandings drove much of the conflict at the time and still cause community tension.  I thought that an objective, thorough examination of the local desegregation process, coupled with the broader historical context of segregation and desegregation in Florida and elsewhere, might help the citizens of Alachua County move toward reconciliation and cooperation.  We need to address issues of race that are still not resolved, more than fifty years later.

When I was at Harvard Law School, in 1967, a fellow student from Gainesville held a sherry party for William S. (“Tiny”) Talbot, then superintendent of schools.  He invited other Harvard students from Gainesville.  Tiny said, “The county spends all this money educating you smart kids, and then you all go away and never come back.”  This book also addresses that burden of guilt.

Q. What made you think you were the person who could write this book?

First, I was part of the Gainesville community just before desegregation.  I knew many of the people (white, at least) who would eventually have to manage the process, whether they were ready or not.  William S. Talbot became school superintendent just in time to implement the county’s first desegregation plan under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I at least understood the way things worked in the white schools.

Second, I have an academic and legal background that gives me the tools and standards for this type of project.  I have written academic and legal papers, although not published, and trial and appellate briefs.  Especially in court briefs, lawyers have to address facts and law that are favorable and unfavorable to their position.  They have to argue their cases from a realistic, objective position.  When I attended Harvard Law School, a principal purpose of the regimen (tellingly sent up in the movie, The Paper Chase) was to give us a firm sense of intellectual honesty.  Reviewing one of my papers, Professor Louis Loss told me that I needed to focus on the most difficult issues, not the easy ones.  That is probably the best advice that any lawyer could receive.

Third, I realized the typical reader would not have a basic grounding in the history of segregation, and the reasons the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (which provided the civil rights lawyers) sought desegregation in the first place.  Also, as I read many books about desegregation written by academics who were not lawyers, I realize that few sources accurately gave the basic, simple trajectory of court cases from Brown to the cases that in 1966 through 1970 finally resulted in the end of the South’s de jure dual school systems for whites and blacks.  As a lawyer, I could provide that context.

Fourth, I wanted to tell the story from the viewpoint of the people who had to make desegregation work, as best they could, the school administrators, teachers, parents, students and other community leaders of both races.  In my research, I did not find another source that focuses on the people who had to make desegregation work in the schools, after the lawyers and judges did their work.  Those people came to their task unprepared, with few resources.  They were ordinary products of their times, asked to do extraordinary things and deal with extraordinary challenges.  Coming back to my familiarity with Gainesville, and my values, I somehow thought that I could capture not just their stories but their innermost thoughts about the events they witnessed.

Q. What are the main threads in the book of which the reader should be aware?

One obvious thread is the way Southern culture and values influenced the people who tried to make school desegregation work.  White and black Southerners knew one another, if not on equal terms.  Contrast the stories in this book with J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, about three families experiencing school desegregation in Boston.

Another thread is Christian faith.  Members of the white and black clergy worked for community understanding and tolerance.  Ordinary people trying to work out issues invoked Christian principles.  A biracial Christian youth group, Young Life, run mostly by white adults, helped smooth the way.

High school athletics, especially football, also helped.  Football teams helped unify the black schools.  Gainesville High’s white coach Jim Niblack pioneered fielding black players during the early years of freedom of choice desegregation.  Later, when the county schools were fully desegregated, Coach Niblack and his white and black players became leaders in suppressing on campus violence.  Just by being on the field, the integrated teams set an example for the rest of the school community.

Not least, this book tells the stories of African Americans who could have left for the North but chose, despite segregation, to remain in Alachua County and to work for their communities.  They became the leaders who nurtured the black schools and then had to adapt to the desegregated schools, facing a tough audience of white adults and students.

Desegregation was not a simple process.  The reader should be aware not just of its apparent successes but also of its apparent failures.  Black participants discuss those questions directly in the Afterword.

Florida’s newly elected Democratic governor, Reuben Askew, told the state PTA organization in 1971, “I wouldn’t be here today if I had been raised in an America which only educated its wealthy children.”  He decried the threatened breakup of the public school system, warning that the quality of public education could decline, “until only the very poor, both white and black, are left … and the great American system of public education is reduced to a baby-sitting service run on federal welfare.”  During desegregation, the people of Alachua County recognized the importance of its public schools and found ways to preserve them.  Above all, the reader should understand the difficulty of that task, the high stakes, and the way that people from top level community leaders to individual students found ways to keep the public schools going for the benefit of both races.

Q. Why should people who are not from Alachua County, or Florida, read this book?

As I researched, interviewed and wrote, I came to realize that the issues faced in Alachua County, and resolved or not, are the same issues faced by all American communities with white and black populations.  There is little dispute that segregation exacerbated inequality of the races.  As Americans, we need to understand that desegregation, by itself, will not magically create equality among the races.  I hope that readers not from Florida will gain in understanding what worked and what did not work in our newly desegregated classrooms.

I also hope that this history will encourage advocates for public schools everywhere in fighting back against attacks on public schools and public school funding.

Q. What are your major conclusions from this work?

I don’t think I owe the reader a laundry list of major conclusions.  My initial goal, as I said, was to provide as objective and complete a history of these events as I possibly could.  Journalists (at least when I was on the Spectator) distinguish “hard news” from “opinion.”  Lawyers distinguish “facts” from “argument.”  I hope that these facts will inform readers’ own conclusions.  I understand that our opinions will continue to differ.  But I hope that we at least will be arguing from accurate facts.

Also, I respect the people I interviewed, who actually participated in and tried to influence these events.  Presenting their conclusions (which sometimes conflict) was much more important to me than forming and articulating my own.  The reader should also value those conclusions more than any of mine.

A high school classmate asked me about my point of view in this book.  I replied that I saw these events from a Graham Green perspective.  Ordinary people, products of their time and place, unprepared, had to struggle with forces that they could not control.  Some did bad things because they didn’t know any better, not because they were racists.  Many behaved courageously.  Many innovated.  Many used some version of love against hate.  Instead of reverting to stereotypes, we need to see the actors as individuals.  I would like us to be grateful for their positive acts and to forgive them for their human frailties.

In the Afterword, I do frame an argument for better engagement of teachers with their students, citing examples from the desegregation years.

I urge improved teacher engagement to help eliminate the so-called “achievement gap” between blacks and whites.  That gap existed when the segregated schools were desegregated.  It has lessened but is still substantial despite desegregation and despite standards based reforms such as No Child Left Behind.

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