Why Johnny Can't Integrate

Integration of schools has been a battle for almost 60 years. White students in Queens, New York boycotted their school after it was forced to participate in an integration plan in 1964.
05_19_JeffersonCounty_01 Source: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty

On a winter afternoon that threatened tornadoes, retired federal judge U.W. Clemon stood at a window 31 floors above Birmingham, looking south. In the foreground was the University of Alabama at Birmingham, whose medical center powers the city’s economy. To the west, railroad tracks snaked between warehouses, vestiges of boom times, when Birmingham was known as “the Pittsburgh of the South.” On the horizon rose Red Mountain, a slight green ridge. Clustered on the other side of its hump, outside the Birmingham city limits, are some of the wealthiest suburbs in Alabama: Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Hoover and Homewood. They have the best schools in the state, and although Alabama has some of the worst schools in the nation, those suburbs frequently make it onto national best-schools lists. Many medical center faculty members live in these “over the mountain” suburbs, as do older Southern families.

Clemon did not go to school over the mountain. His grandparents were sharecroppers in Noxubee County, Mississippi. His parents left for Alabama, where his mother worked as a domestic for a white Birmingham family, while his father was a bricklayer’s helper. He started at the Dolomite Colored Elementary School. “We had outside privies,” he remembered over lunch at City Club Birmingham. The crowd was light. Other than the servers, he was the only black person in the room. At one point, two white men came over, and one of them greeted “the judge.” The other asked if the judge was famous, and the first one said yes, he was.

Clemon went to Miles College, right outside Birmingham, and became involved in the civil rights movement, working with Martin Luther King Jr. He jokingly recalled unfavorable coverage the movement received from Newsweek in the 1960s. When I mentioned that I hoped to do archival research at the Birmingham Public Library, Clemon chuckled. “I desegregated that,” he said.

Clemon went to Columbia Law School in New York City, then returned to Birmingham to practice civil rights law. In 1971, he argued Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education , in which a black parent sued the county school system, which she claimed was segregated by race. The federal judge agreed and ordered the schools to integrate. The schools of Jefferson County (the schools of Birmingham itself are a separate entity) remain under that decree to this day.

Clemon eventually became Alabama’s first black federal judge, joining the U.S. District Court that ruled in the school desegregation case, in the Northern District of Alabama. He stayed on the bench for nearly three decades. In what must have been a surreal moment, the descendant of Southern slaves retired in early 2009 with a resignation letter to Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.

More recently, Clemon has found himself in another surreal situation. This past winter, he was in court to argue Stout v. Jefferson County once again, this time because a middle-class Birmingham suburb called Gardendale wants to leave the Jefferson County school system. Gardendale, which is mostly white, says race has nothing to do with its push for secession: It simply wants to control its schools.

Clemon is skeptical. “The intent is to create a local school system where they will have control over who comes in and that they will minimize the number of blacks who come in,” he told me in his raspy, slightly mischievous baritone. Local control has become a popular rallying cry in municipalities across the nation—including liberal states like New York and California—that

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