IT WAS preaching to the choir amid the rubble of the church.
Civil rights leaders, researchers, lawyers and students gathered in Chapel Hill, N.C., last weekend for a conference with an interrogatory theme: "The Resegregation of Southern Schools?"
Speaker after speaker, researcher after researcher, answered yes, as the conference turned into a long day of mourning for the glory days of school desegregation.
The conference sponsors, Harvard's Civil Rights Project and the University of North Carolina's Center for Civil Rights, expected 200, but 500 signed up. I mention the numbers because one observer said those who attended were the last Americans to believe all races benefit when the races are mixed in school.
"Many people think that the civil rights movement, both intellectually and emotionally, has run out of gas," said Gary Orfield, co-leader of the Harvard project who presided sadly over several sessions. "Something is being lost that will be very hard to replace in this country."
One speaker, John Charles Boger of the University of North Carolina School of Law, likened resegregation to a "perfect storm," a convergence of forces that threatens to negate two decades of efforts that turned the South from the most segregated into the most integrated region of the nation.
The enemies? There is the federal government, called by civil rights warhorse William L. Taylor a "tower of Jell-O" in enforcing the law. There are the courts, now prohibiting districts from considering race in school assignments. Perhaps most important, there are parents -- of both whites and minorities -- who no longer seem to care.
Ann Majestic, a school board lawyer in Raleigh, N.C., observed that newcomers to bustling Southern cities such as Raleigh, Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta "have no idea what it is we've been fighting for. ... We aren't educating the children of the children of the '60s."
Emblematic of what is happening is Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., which in 1992 abandoned the cross-town busing at the heart of its 20-year-old desegregation order. Then, at the end of the 1990s, a court declared Charlotte "unitary," despite sharp increases in segregation throughout the decade.
Several speakers at the conference are products of desegregated schools. All said they had benefited from the experience. All bemoaned the racial isolation caused by white flight to private schools and the suburbs. And all said the abandoned schools get nowhere near the attention, or the instructional quality, of desegregated schools.
"As you descend into the basement, where the schooling is less demanding and the teachers less qualified, the school gets darker," said john a. powell (he prefers lowercase), founder of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota and former national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
I covered the mammoth court-ordered desegregation push across the South for the Atlanta Constitution in the late 1960s. At one point, 82 districts in Georgia alone were under orders to reassign students, and Atlanta was under a separate suit that required integration of both students and teachers.
The districts that complied with the law were not, by and large, those that got the newspaper ink and the television coverage. Media attention was lavished on angry picketing, on school boycotts and on Gov. Lester Maddox's clownish behavior.
Today, schools in Atlanta (and those in Baltimore) are among the most racially isolated in the nation, and many of the small districts that painfully observed the law 32 years ago have seen whites migrate to private schools, leaving behind more isolation. Today, as Southern schools return to segregation, there is no marching in the streets, no mass movement to arrest the process. Just 500 folks in a North Carolina conference center.
Report praises leaders in four urban districts
But then there are bright spots.
A report issued last week praised four urban school districts where strong leaders were able to raise academic achievement and reduce minority-white achievement gaps in the late 1990s. One of them, according to the report, was Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where Superintendent Eric Smith, who arrived in 1996, took a "comprehensive, systemwide" approach to school reform.
In other words, said the report from the Council of the Great City Schools and the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., top-down systemwide reform works in big cities better than school-by-school efforts.
The other successful districts were Sacramento, Calif., Houston and the Chancellor's District in New York City. Two things are worth noting: Houston's superintendent, Rod Paige, became President Bush's education secretary, and Charlotte's Smith jumped this summer to the top schools post in Anne Arundel County.