Spanish philosopher and writer George Santayana once declared, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” How timely it is then, given the news that the Arkansas Department of Education is allowing more and more interdistrict school transfers, that we in Arkansas remember the approaching 50th anniversary of Raney v. Board of Education. The Raney case, originating in Gould (Lincoln County), was one of three heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in April and May 1968 that halted the segregationist school choice agenda in its tracks. Temporarily, at least.
After the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954, a number of Southern states vowed a campaign of massive resistance to its implementation. This led to several confrontations between federal and state authorities, one of the most notable taking place at Central High School in September 1957, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and deployed federal troops to ensure that the Little Rock Nine could safely attend school under a court-approved desegregation plan. Confrontations such as the one at Central High gave rise to less violent and more covert forms of resistance to school desegregation. In the 1960s, so-called “freedom of choice” plans gained popularity as a way of obstructing the meaningful integration of schools. The question about the legality of such plans came to a head in the Supreme Court’s 1968 term with three interrelated cases that raised similar issues: Green v. County School Board of New Kent County in Virginia; Monroe v. Board of Commissioners of Jackson, Tenn.; and Arthur Lee Raney v. Board of Education of the Gould School District in Arkansas.
The Raney case had its origins in a “freedom of choice” plan adopted by the Gould School District in 1965. In the 1964-65 school year, 10 years after the Brown decision, the district’s schools were still totally segregated. The district covered an area of 80 square miles and had a population of 3,000. Of these, 1,800 residents were black and 1,200 were white. Since Gould was the only town in the predominantly rural county, many of the district’s students attended school there. Gould maintained two segregated combined elementary and high schools just 10 blocks apart from each other. In 1964, 300 white students attended the combined Gould Schools and 580 black students attended the combined all-black Field Schools.
In 1965, the Gould School District adopted a “freedom of choice” plan to remain eligible for federal aid after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Following passage of the act, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) threatened to remove federal funding from school districts that did not comply with the Brown decision. However, HEW failed to close the “freedom of choice” loophole. Like other such plans being adopted throughout the South at the time, Gould’s plan permitted students to choose a school on an annual basis. If a student did not choose a school, they were automatically assigned to the school they had previously attended. As was almost always the case under “freedom of choice” plans, in 1965 no white students in Gould chose to attend the black schools with inferior facilities. The Field Schools were repurposed buildings that had housed Japanese Americans in internment camps in the Arkansas Delta during World War II. Twenty-eight black students exercised their freedom of choice to attend the white Gould Schools. But they were refused entry on the grounds that there was not enough room for them. Freedom of choice, it seemed, actually meant no choice at all for black students. Some of the black students denied entry to the Gould Schools filed suit on the grounds that they were being required to attend a segregated school, that the district provided inferior facilities for black students, and that the school board was still in effect “operating a racially segregated school system.”
While the case was pending in the courts, plans were made to replace the Field Schools with new facilities in the hope that it would encourage black students to withdraw their lawsuit. The black students instead sought to prevent the construction of the new school facilities, arguing that any new school building should only be permitted on an integrated basis. In 1967, the school district made another concession by allowing 85 black students to attend the Gould Schools. Despite this, over 85 percent of black students in the district attended segregated schools. The District Court of Eastern Arkansas ultimately dismissed the Raney suit on the grounds that the Gould School District had adopted a “freedom of choice” plan voluntarily, that HEW had approved the plan, and that some black students had already enrolled at the formerly white Gould Schools. These factors, the court said, “seem to indicate that this plan is more than a pretense or sham to meet the minimum requirements of the law.” The Appeals Court upheld the District Court’s ruling. The petitioners in the case then asked the Appeals Court to require the conversion of Gould Schools to a desegregated high school and Field Schools to a desegregated primary school. The Appeals Court rejected the request.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Raney case on appeal in 1968, along with the Green and Monroe cases. In the Raney case, the court came to three distinct conclusions. Firstly, the “freedom of choice” plan in operation in Gould was “inadequate to convert it to a unitary, non racial system.” Secondly, the plan for converting existing segregated schools into a desegregated high school and elementary school should be heard in the lower courts. Thirdly, the District Court’s initial dismissal of the case was improper, since the court had a duty “to insure (1) that a constitutionally acceptable plan is adopted, and (2) that it is operated in a constitutionally permissible fashion so that the goal of a desegregated, nonracially operated school system is rapidly and finally achieved.” Although the court stopped short of declaring “freedom of choice” plans unconstitutional, such plans quickly lost their popularity as schools faced a court that was increasingly determined not to allow school desegregation plans that merely pretended to desegregate while in fact maintaining the segregated status quo.
Today’s school choice laws in Arkansas resemble the older, discredited “freedom of choice” plans by permitting student choice across school district lines in the same way that the “freedom of choice” plans once permitted student choice within school districts. As the “freedom of choice” cases in the 1960s clearly demonstrate, in Arkansas and throughout the South, the school choice agenda has invariably meant defending the choice of white students not to attend schools with black students, while denying the choice of black students to attend schools with white students. Never have the words “freedom” and “choice” been so brazenly misappropriated to mean their exact antithesis. School choice has been, remains, and likely always will be a one-way street to school segregation.
John A. Kirk is the Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.