‘It feels like we’re back in the ‘60s’

Times Staff Writer

For 35 years under court order, the yellow buses have picked up black children from the city’s Oxmoor Valley and carried them up the hill and across city limits to affluent, mostly white suburban public schools.

Rita Jones Turner was one of the first children to be bused to Vestavia Hills after a 1970 federal court order required the district to enroll African Americans from her neighborhood. The bus, which was often late and sometimes never came, took her to a middle school where teachers tried to put her in remedial classes and white classmates tore her barrettes from her hair.

Today, her youngest son, a ninth-grader at Vestavia Hills High School, makes the same journey up the hill into a friendlier environment.


But last month, he came home with a letter informing her that the Vestavia Hills school board had filed a motion to end the desegregation order. The district is among a growing number across the nation seeking to have the decades-old orders overturned; this year, dozens have succeeded.

Now, Jones Turner, a 45-year-old consumer debt counselor, finds herself struggling against the idea that the personal hardships she endured during the 1970s would just be part of a failed social experiment.

“We were used, mistreated, downtrodden and discriminated against,” she said, her firm voice swelling as she retraced her old bus route one recent afternoon. “I have no problem with being a sacrificial lamb for the good of the community, but to have the system back out now is not fair. They made a commitment to educate black children.”

Home of civil rights history

Those fighting to keep the order in place are particularly disappointed that the issue would be revisited in Birmingham, where so much of the civil rights movement’s history was made. In the last 15 years, city leaders have built museums and monuments to commemorate the four schoolgirls who died in the 1963 bombing of a black church, and the demonstrators who were met with attack dogs in a march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the same year.

But the district says its request is a matter of economics, not race -- that absorbing the children of Oxmoor Valley is an unfair burden on its budget.

Vestavia Hills’ desegregation order was to be in place until 25% of the school system’s population was African American. Today, 7% of its students are black, with about a quarter of those coming from Oxmoor Valley. Some vestiges of the old South remain: The Vestavia Hills High School mascot is the Rebel, depicted as a white-haired man in Confederate-era garb; although the practice is now discouraged by the school, some students still display Confederate flags at football games.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision found school segregation to be unconstitutional, and a follow-up ruling in 1968, many school systems were ordered to bus children from other districts to achieve integration.

This fall, the justices will hear appeals from parents in Seattle and in Louisville, Ky., who say it is unconstitutional for officials to consider race when deciding what school a student will attend. Meanwhile, over the last 15 years, courts have lifted desegregation orders in more than 100 school districts from Alabama to California -- often after districts showed they were making a good faith effort, successful or not, to achieve racial integration. This year, federal courts have sided 36 times with districts seeking to overturn desegregation orders involving the Justice Department.

Only a few requests to end the orders have been rejected. In June, for example, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court decision to keep the school district of Little Rock, Ark., under its desegregation order, arguing it did not sufficiently appraise how its academic programs helped black students.

Opponents come together

In Birmingham, a well-connected group of civil rights activists, lawmakers, attorneys, pastors and residents has come together over the last month to oppose Vestavia Hills’ request to end the desegregation order.

“They are saying to Martin Luther King, ‘To hell with your dream: This is 2006 and it’s business as usual in Vestavia Hills,’ ” said the Rev. Jonathan McPherson, who was jailed with King in 1963 and is board chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham chapter.

The Vestavia Hills desegregation order was issued after the affluent southeastern suburb established its own school system to avoid sending its children to integrated Birmingham city schools. A federal judge ruled that the 99% white system had to accept children from a designated portion of the neighboring Oxmoor Valley.

Now, Vestavia Hills is asking a federal judge to grant it unitary status, freeing it from court supervision and further desegregation obligations.

“It feels like we’re back in the ‘60s again,” said Theodore Lawson, a Jefferson County attorney who lives in Oxmoor Valley and opposes lifting the order. “If this is not racism, what is it?”

Vestavia Hills Supt. Jamie Blair said the issue was one of funding and capacity. In the last four years, he said, the number of Oxmoor students in the district has risen from 75 to 132.

“Simply put, it’s an overcrowding issue,” he said. “Our city has no control over the amount of housing built in that area. We’re providing schooling to all the folk in Oxmoor, but their tax dollars go to the city of Birmingham.”

Oxmoor Valley, which at the time of the court order was home to a small community of mostly poor blacks, is a nearly 8,000-acre pine forest south of downtown Birmingham. An increasing number of real estate developers are now eyeing the valley, attracted in part by its school zoning. Two upscale subdivisions have been built in the last decade, and hundreds more homes and apartments are planned.

The valley’s new residents -- mostly African American professionals -- bristle at the notion that Vestavia Hills schools are overcrowded. Not all of the new homes in Oxmoor Valley, they note, are zoned to the Vestavia Hills school district. Furthermore, Vestavia Hills recently annexed two predominantly white communities.

“The only effort to relieve overcrowding has been to remove 132 black students from the school system,” said Lawson, who is president of the Ridgeview Estates subdivision association.

According to Vestavia Hills’ request, which is now before a federal judge, the school system would continue educating the 132 students now enrolled from Oxmoor Valley and offer enrollment to their younger siblings. Other students would attend Birmingham city schools. A U.S. district judge has scheduled a status conference on the case for Wednesday.

Since the board publicized its request, supporters of the 1970 court order have scrutinized Vestavia Hills’ progress on racial desegregation.

Although a small number of African Americans have moved to Vestavia Hills in recent years, it remains one of most exclusively white areas of Jefferson County. According to the 2000 census, Vestavia Hills has a 94% white population and a median household income of $70,000. In contrast, Birmingham has a 24% white population and a median household income of $26,000. Only 5% of Birmingham public school students are white.

In a legal strategy meeting last month at the Oxmoor Valley home of Birmingham City Councilor Miriam Witherspoon, residents noted the Vestavia Hills school district’s low number of black administrators (1 out of 16), the relatively high number of black special-education students (60 out of 546), and that just 3% of the district’s teachers are black.

“The schools are as segregated in 2006 as they were in 1966,” said Ronald Jackson, executive director of Citizens for Better Schools, a watchdog group in Birmingham.

Vestavia Hills viewpoints

On a recent day in Vestavia Hills, many of the parents picking up their children from football at Louis Pizitz Middle School were reluctant to talk about the court order.

Waiting for her ninth-grade son in a navy-blue Lexus, Kim Tortorice, who is white, said she did not believe race was an issue.

“Our school really is a melting pot,” she said. “We have Chinese, Mexican, Russian.”

Vestavia, she thought, was handling the situation fairly.

“I just think everyone should pay the same property tax, that’s all,” she said. “I work hard. Those people across town don’t pay our property taxes.”

But Darryl Dancey, 40, an African American truck driver who moved to Vestavia Hills last year for the benefit of his children’s education, said he hoped the court order would stay in place.

“The original decision was for integration,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t think integration has truly happened yet.”