On desegregation

The old city hall, La Porte, Texas,

It has seemed good in recent days to hold my own opinions close and listen to others. That still feels appropriate, but there is a meme making the rounds on social media that won’t let me sit. Like many memes, it captures a sentiment by a questionable representation of fact. I’m talking about a graph in the form of a gauge or meter that indicates the years 1526 to 1865 as the span of American slavery, and 1865 to 1954 as the span of segregation.

The indicated end of segregation is pure fantasy. Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, but Gov. George Wallace attempted to block the first African-American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama in June 1963. He attempted to block the first African-American elementary school students from enrolling in Huntsville, Alabama, public schools in September of that same year.

A native of La Porte, Texas, born in 1955, I was in the third grade when the La Porte Independent School District integrated in the 1963-1964 school year. The next year was the first when I shared a classroom with African-American students. On its history page, the La Porte ISD congratulates itself as one of the earliest districts in the country to fully integrate facilities and student body. It also claims to have been an example to others of “peaceful” integration. That word, “peaceful,” stretches to a greater or lesser degree depending upon who does the telling. And what they choose to tell.

Note: Brown v. Board of Education was 1954; La Porte claims it was one of the first districts in the country to fully integrate…in 1963.

My memory is that the school district integrated before the local movie theater. In the early sixties, the Port Theater was a happening place, especially for youth on Saturdays. The weekly matinee—as I remember it—was always a bill of two feature films (one usually a Tarzan), five cartoons, a dance contest and a drawing for a silver dollar. Tickets for age 12 and under were fifty cents (can that be right?) and no matter what was on the screen, the place was air conditioned. Granted, one person’s memory alone is never entirely reliable, and sometimes not at all. I’m sure other fugitives from La Porte will set me straight.

A memory I can assert with confidence is that the main doors and box office of the Port fronted on Main Street, but the entrance and box office for African-Americans was around the side on Fourth. The main entrance led through the lobby to the main floor; the side entrance led to a balcony. The snack bar had a large counter open to the lobby and a small counter open to the Fourth Street entrance. I cannot remember when the theater integrated, except that I think it was later than the school. When I finally left La Porte during my first year of college, 1973-74, the town itself was still overwhelmingly segregated into an African-American residential area north of Main Street/east of Highway 146—”North Side”—and all the rest of the town.

To the makers of memes and, even more, to the people who post and repost without checking facts or examining sources, the point is that segregation did not end in 1954. In fact, it has not yet ended. Court-ordered busing was an attempt to end segregation in individual (never all) localities. White-supremacists managed to destroy those initiatives. Affirmative action programs attempted to address underlying causes of structural segregation—like La Porte’s North Side—with direct intervention, but white-supremacists destroyed those programs, too. Justices ruled in 1954 that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. It was a crucial step, but only one in a process far from ended.