At the start of the 1966-67 school year, 50 years ago, my educational landscape changed radically. as the beginning of my junior year in high school took me in a new direction. Having been born into a society that denied black Americans equal protection of the law, I became part of the effort to end segregation in public education by making the decision to attend Clinton High, the white high school, as the new school year began in September 1966.
By this time, North Carolina had decided to drag its feet and move cautiously toward integrating the schools, even though the United States Supreme Court had ruled on May 17. 2954 the historic Brown vs Board of Education decision, forcing schools to integrate. Following the Brown decision in 1954, NC Gov. William B. Umstead’s response was to form a committee to study “the effects of the state’s obeying the Supreme Court ruling,” with the committee coming to the conclusion that desegregation “throughout the state cannot be accomplished and should not be attempted.”
That next year, the new NC Gov. Luther Hodges instituted more delay by studying the issue further. Finally, Gov. Hodges’ committee introduced the freedom-of-choice plan, which continued to deny blacks equal protection of the law. Under the choice plan, schools largely remained segregated as only a few black students chose to attend a white school. And no white students made the choice to attend black schools. By the time I graduated high school in the spring of 1968, only 32 percent of black children in the South attended schools with whites. By the early 1970s, our state did finally meet the requirements of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, starting along the way to undoing the effects of segregation in public education. In a broader context, we are still dealing with years of injustice and the effect it has on the hearts and minds of people.
Now, going forward, 50 years later, I’m afraid we are still inadequately dealing with the long history of racism, exclusion and low expectations when it comes to educating our black children. But we do know that “we have a power potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.” Additionally, I am reminded of the candid assessment of the superintendent of Sampson County Schools as he stated back in 2014, “We aren’t where we all want to be yet,but the key is we are working toward that every day.”
Fifty years later, and now more than ever, let’s be mindful of the fact that our history as a people is deeply rooted in education, and the future of our race still depends on the education of our young people. We must forever strive to inspire black youth to stay in school, work hard and to commit to “reaching for greater.”
Fifty years later, and there is still much work to do.
Larry Sutton is a retired teacher from Clinton High School.