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The Powell Amendment


When President Eisenhower's $1.6 million school construction bill dropped into Congressional hoppers last month, it seemed destined for quick enactment. The measure had been drawn up after consultation with some of the nation's leading educators. Even detractors of the administration's program admitted that the school building proposal was good in principle; federal funds for school construction were urgently needed. Their only reservation was that the bill simply did not grant enough money. Today, however, the measure lies moribund in the House Rules Committee, slowly being strangled by the Powell Amendment.

The brainstorm of New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, this amendment would withhold federal funds from any school district that refused to obey the Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation in public schools. Powell argues that no federal money should be spent on segregated school programs because such construction would invite Southern districts to circumvent the law. If federal funds are used to build segregated schools now, Powell suggests, these structures will be illogically situated when desegregation arrives.

Naturally enough, the Powell Amendment has come in for a great deal of Southern criticism. Should the bill, with the amendment attached, ride through the House on Northern votes, it is certain to fail in the Upper House where Dixie Senators would block its passage. If Powell does not agree to withdraw his amendment, therefore, he will probably kill all chance of federal aid to school construction--at least during this session of Congress.

The school bill's death would be regrettable; for, as the recent White House Conference on Education has reported, the need for federal aid in new school construction is critical. The amendment's provisions, moreover, would affect those sections of the country which need such aid the most: the deep South, where many school districts face the prospect of making do with plants that are little short of decrepit.

These are the same school districts that have been dilatory about complying with the desegregation decision. Powell maintains, and with some justice, that, if Southern districts refuse to desegregate, Congress should make continued segregation costly for them. His proposal, however, would, in effect, block federal aid from all school districts, not just those which have defied the Court.

In attempting indirectly to enforce the Court's decision, Congress would be trying to fulfill a function for which it is eminently unsuited. A history of painful episodes indicates that Congress is not the arena in which to settle matters of race relations. The Powell Amendment is an attempt to make the Congress the arbiter of inter-racial antagonisms in the South--a role it cannot play.

While the congressional battle over the Powell Amendment winds on, the need for a federally-supported school construction program grows more urgent. The bill to grant such aid is dangerously near extinction. The immediate need for government aid to education should overbalance the desire for Congressional enforcement of the desegregation decision. Congressman Powell should withdraw his rider and allow the school bill to rise from its death bed.

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