I want to start with an old essay I wrote at the start of my time as a Black partisan (no, I was not always one). At the time I called myself an "aggregationist."
Claude McKay said in his autobiography, "Negroes do not understand the difference between group segregation and group aggregation. And their leaders do not enlighten them, because they too do not choose to understand."
This is all too true. Fortunately, I'm not a leader. I have chosen to understand. And I have chosen to explain the difference, and the difference that difference makes.
Segregation and aggregation both refer to a gathering together of things according to some shared characteristic. Both imply considering that group a single entity. But just as all other things can be constructive or destructive, so can this viewing groups of people collectively. Aggregation is the positive side of this collective viewing, while segregation is the negative side.
What makes segregation negative is that it's something that's done to you, whereas aggregation is something that is done by you. Segregation is imposed on you, aggregation is chosen by you. When you aggregate, you draw together with people. When you segregate, you push people aside.
When I wrote the essay it was to explain why it is no sin for Black folks to actively support each other on principle…the nature of aggregation was under discussion. This time it is the nature of segregation being considered, and I'm doing it in connection with the widely reported "failure" of integration to "close the education gap."
Yes. Scare quotes. And you gotta do some history with me. Can't change it, but it is the only source of data we have to analyse.
We all know Jim Crow was the order of the day at the time Brown was decided. And as the neo-Confederates will never fail to reminder us, it wasn't only in the South that The Negro had problems. I think it safe to say that at the time a plurality of mainstream types actively disliked The Negro and a majority of the balance didn't much find him to be the sort of fellow one would associate with.
But have you ever wondered (okay, I'm assuming you knew) why there were so many intelligent, erudite Black folks so quickly after the War Between The States? One reason is their teachers volunteered to teach them. People who though it important enough that The Negro be educated that they moved into his midst. That all broke down of course, and wasn't intended to end segregation anyway...separate can be equal, but you have to give it an honest shot.
And it was almost tried.
It took me a while to wrap my mind around the fact that Brown v.Board of Education wasn't the seminal case decided that day. For some reason, perhaps because I wasn't as familiar with the details as I could have been, I thought the set of class actions was named for the case of greatest significance.
Ironically, it was not Brown but the case from South Carolina, Briggs v Elliott, that was the more important and interesting of the four. The Topeka case arose out of an 1867 law that permitted towns of more than 15,000 to segregate their elementary schools; the other states had constitutional and statutory provisions that mandated racial segregation at all levels.
The story in South Carolina was very different. South Carolina had been the nullification state in 1832, the first to secede in 1860, and since the 1890s had built a rigid set of laws and customs segregating the races. Harry Briggs, a tenant farmer and navy veteran, with five children, "figured anything to better the children's education was worthwhile...." Clarendon County was part of the old cotton belt and most blacks were poor tenant or sharecropping farmers The county school enrollment was 6,531 blacks and 2,375 whites ; and the total value of the 61 black schools was officially listed as $194,575; the value of the white schools was put at $673,850. In 1949-50 Clarendon County spent $179 per white child in the public schools; but only $43 for each black child. In District #1 of the county, where Briggs and the other plaintiffs lived, there were 2,800 African Americans and 295 whites. Such a picture repeated itself over and over in the Deep South.
Even more significant that the statistics was the solution the State of South Carolina proposed:
At the beginning of the hearing the defendants admitted upon the record that 'the educational facilities, equipment, curricula and opportunities afforded in School District No. 22 for colored pupils * * * are not substantially equal to those afforded for white pupils'. The evidence offered in the case fully sustains this admission. The defendants contend, however, that the district is one of the rural school districts which has not kept pace with urban districts in providing educational facilities for the children of either race, and that the inequalities have resulted from limited resources and from the disposition of the school officials to spend the limited funds available 'for the most immediate demands rather than in the light of the overall picture'. They state that under the leadership of Governor Byrnes the Legislature of South carolina has made provision for a bond issue of $75,000,000 with a three per cent sales tax to support it for the purpose of equalizing educational opportunities and facilities throughout the state and of meeting the problem of providing equal educational opportunities for Negro children where this had not been done. They have offered evidence to show that this educational program is going forward and that under it the educational facilities in the district will be greatly improved for both races and that Negro children will be afforded educational facilities and opportunities in all respects equal to those afforded white children.
This wasn't what I would call a noble gesture, but the best one could do if one truly both believed in segregation and acknowledged federal law takes precedence: fulfill the law in the narrowest means possible, In this case it meant providing the "equal" part of separate but equal...in public facilities. This was the first sales tax ever enacted in South Carolina. It meant they had to pay to maintain their segregation...and the significance of that is they were willing to do so.
The offer South Carolina made has fascinated me for years. I've read a number of alternate universe science fiction and can't help by see that moment as a turning point
This would have been an acceptable outcome to folks on the ground because we minorities ain't stupid. I can assure you, based on talks with older folks than me, they were fully aware of how strongly the local white folks felt about segregation since they were the ones constantly being pushed aside. Do you know what the settlement the Black folks of Selma, AL originally asked for in their bus boycott? Only that they not be required to give up a seat, or be left on the sidewalk, after they'd paid for it. They had no problem being seated from back to front while white folks were seated from front to back, or even getting on at the back of the bus. They wanted what they paid for, and when the all the seats were filled the next passenger of whatever race would stand until a seat was available.
No, Black folks weren't stupid enough to directly repudiate such a deeply held fusion of religion and politics.
But even though South Carolina offered this up, the Brown legal team felt they had to consider the bigger picture. South Carolina was just one state; it would probably set a precedent for the other states of the old Confederacy given its status as historical role model, but how long would that take? There's this divine impatience you get when you're sure you doing God's will, when you surf the cresting wave of destiny. When I was studying the history of Europe (as one must) it occurred to me that Germany's biggest flaw pre-WW I was impatience. As Europe's dominant economy, home of the most prestigious learning and research centers, and with their growing influence, I really feel had they simply kept doing what they were doing all along Europe would have unified under Germany in the normal course of events. But when you're on that wave, you want to make sure you see the way it turns out.
From PBS's African American World site:
Several years before 1963, the African American community had adopted the motto "Free by '63". And by 1963, a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the civil rights movement had made much progress: lunch counters and other public accommodations had become integrated and the Kennedy administration announced new civil rights proposals.
I suspect divine impatience was an element in how the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund decided to handle these cases. I believe it affected the whole community. Black folks figured if they were in the same place at the same time as white folks were being taught they would learn too; this is a very different goal than integration
Thing is, they weren't expecting to change. Integration was to give us access to the stuff we need to have our own. And they didn't consider the fact that the mainstream's memory those legal cases that made us so giddy was different than ours, but just as fresh, vivid and inspiring. Given that we humans were happy to be on the winning side, how do you suppose being on the losing side made them humans feel?
Shouldn't have been so triumphal. Though I hate to say NewsMax got something right, Newsmax got something right:
In fact, the civil rights movement was not about politics. Nor was it about which politicians did what and which political party should take the most credit. When it came to civil rights, America's politicians merely saw the handwriting on the wall and wrote the legislation to make into federal law the historical changes that had already taken place. There was nothing else they could do.
Now, how would it feel to watch people you are convinced are not only your inferior but your subordinate stake out territory you expressly forbade him?
And if you're honest, how can you not see the reaction as a most eminently human one? You don't have to like it. But you do have to acknowledge it. It doesn't seem to me the Black community did so.
I'm not sure if our legislators took it into account or not, because the method chosen to integrate was SO blind to human nature it may have been intentional sabotage along the lines of Howard Smith's adding women to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, with the intent of making it tough enough to frighten off the support Bull Connor so thoughtfully arranged. I mean, didn't we just lose over some buses? We have to let them sit wherever they want, but next to my sweet child? And it's bad enough you want to bus them over here, but what caring parent would allow their child to be shipped across the city before the sun even comes up sometimes to go to that school...the one even niggers don't want?
It's important to remember the collective response because the whole teaching vibe is voluntary. It's a matter of knowledge, skills and experience, yes, but it's also a matter of intent. You can't force intent, nor can you fake it. Right now there's a teacher somewhere grumbling and mad as hell because there ain't enough supplies for the whole week's lesson, but fuck that I'm coming out my pocket, bring that shit myself hmph how the hell they expect me to do my job I got kids to teach I'll put the can of corned beef hash in the fridge until it's firm slice it thin enough for sandwiches all week so I can get this stuff for my kids. Bastards.
It was years before our children were feeling that kind of love.
Then there was the change from integration-as-tactic to integration-as-goal. But I intend to post this today.
I guess what I'm saying in my overextended way is, when you look for a reason the "failure" of integration to "close the education gap" you can't be simplistic about it because now is always the result of a confluence of events, forces, human reactions and timing.
And if you're looking for someone to blame, don't. Because we're at the beginning of a new road and Black folks are as inexperienced at being free as white folks are having us among them as such. Almost as inexperienced. And it's still trial and error out here.
I'd like to think if we all keep that in mind it would help.