August 01, 2011

A Memphis Dilemma

A Memphis Dilemma: A Half-Century of Education in Memphis and Shelby County from Desegregation to Consolidation

Abstract: On May 17, 1954, the day that the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, essentially four separate school systems existed within the borders of Shelby County, Tennessee. Memphis City Schools (MCS) served students within the city limits, and Shelby County Schools (SCS) served the balance of students in the county; within each system were white schools and black schools. The next several decades saw the two districts grapple with implementation of the Supreme Court mandate to remove the vestiges of segregation from public education.

By 2010, both districts had achieved unitary status, freeing them from court supervision and adherence to judicially approved desegregation plans. However, there remained a sense in the community that public education remained very much separate - and that there was a continued racial component to that separation. Indeed, the demographics of the two districts supported this perception. Of the 100,000 students in MCS, nearly 90% were African American. Meanwhile, the majority of the county’s white students were learning in SCS. Coupling these demographic differences with the fact that the county schools performed better educationally, on average, by state accountability standards and the claims of separate, unequal schooling no different than what was confronted in Brown seemed even more legitimate.

This article appeared in the University of Memphis Law Review.  The full article is available here.