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Teaching the School Boards

Ed School Professor Willie Guides Desegregation Efforts

By Susan K. Brown

In 1961, a Black sociologist at a convention at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis wanted to take dip in the hotel's swimming pool. But the lifeguard, for no apparent reason, refused to let him swim. The sociologist was enraged and marched to the front desk, insisting on seeing the hotel manager. When the manager did not appear, the sociologist kept standing in the lobby in his swimming trunks until a crowd had gathered. Someone called the St. Louis Human Rights Commission; somebody else notified the American Sociological Association (ASA). The local and national press appeared. Then ASA, which had about 1500 members at the hotel for the convention, threatened to pull out and persuaded a national psychologists' convention to threaten cancellation if hotel management did not immediately open the pool to all guests. As a result, the pool was opened, and the sociologist from Syracuse University reluctantly--he had lost his desire to swim during the fracas--dogpaddled in front of onlookers.

That sociologist--Charles V. Willie, now professor of Education and Urban Studies--does not back away from any scraps. While Willie tries to avoid racial confrontations, his theories encompassing race relations and desegregation (his fields of expertise), are forthright. Asserting "Willie's Law," he says, "They will do it to you as long as you let them."

"I don't accept intolerance. I just don't. It hurts you when you are resisting it. After it's over it's kind of fun. But while you're in the middle of it, it's something else," he says.

Professionally, Willie is often in the middle of it. He has been a consultant on desegregation in cities such as Denver, Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis. In Boston, Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. appointed Willie as one of four experts evaluating desegregation plans. In Denver, Willie outlined his philosophy on the ingredients of a good desegregation plan and presented a plan for dividing the city into sub-districts to minimize busing and allow as much diversity as possible in each school. In St. Louis, he told a court-appointed group monitoring the implementation of desegregation what he saw as its responsibilities and authority; he also suggested that the city itself had enough white students to desegregate schools without drawing in children from the suburban county.

"My experience has been that the limitation of most court-ordered school desegregation plans is that no one is present to make sure that the school board carries out its mission," Willie says, stressing the importance of monitoring groups to alleviate the pressure on school boards. "Most federal courts throughout the United States have, in effect, found the school boards guilty of being the fox that was stealing the chickens. And then the courts turn to the school boards and say, 'We have found you guilty of stealing chickens'--stealing chickens, in this instance, is being guilty of maintaining a segregated system. Then the courts say to the school systems, 'Since you have been found guilty of stealing chickens, we want you to develop a plan for securing the chicken-house.' It doesn't make sense to me.

"Most school committees--which are a majority of whites--assume that a desegregated, quality education can occur only when whites are in the majority. I discovered this while I was in Dallas, where I served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, testifying in court. I recall that the attorney for the school board there said, 'Now Dr. Willie, suppose we do desegregate Dallas in the way which you suggested, and it becomes like Atlanta. What would you say to that? So I asked the school board attorney, 'Tell me, please, how is Atlanta?' And at that time, he said that the Atlanta school population is more than 80 per cent Black. And my response to the attorney was this: 'Sir, there is no problem at all. I have known many excellent school systems that were 80 per cent white.' Whereupon the attorney said. 'No further questions.' "

But Willie recommends that ideally one-third of any school's students, though that minority can be white or Black, be from an ethnic or racial minority. As a minimum, he says that one-fifth a school's population should be minority. Otherwise, the minority group will have little chance to influence the school or the other students.

Willie praises Harvard for finally achieving what he considers minimum standards. About 21 per cent of the College is a racial minority, although the percentages in the graduate schools are lower. But Willie adds that he would like to see Blacks and whites switch roles for a while. There is no easier way for a majority people to learn to be generous and compassionate, and for minorities to learn to be magnanimous, he says. "We have done a disservice to whites by not showing them what it's like to be a minority. Now many people may think I'm mischievous and talking tongue-in-cheek, but I also think it's important for Blacks to be in the majority," Willie adds.

The word "diversity" peppers Willie's conversation. To him it is nothing, like the concept of racial balance, which he calls "head-counting." Diversity stems from a recognition that students--and teachers--from different racial and ethnic backgrounds enrich the educational process. "The existential history of minorities is different from the existential history of majorities," he says.

Few people recognize the benefits of interracial contact, Willie says. "I've found, for instance, that since desegregation, more white students from South Boston have decided to go on to college. Going to college was always in with Blacks. But for working-class whites, the feeling was that it was beyond them and was reserved for the rich. When the whites saw Blacks going to college, they thought, "if they can do it, so can we.'" Willie asserts that another benefit of desegregation is that whites are learning to overcome a widespread feeling of superiority to Blacks. At the same time, he adds that Blacks are also learning to erase residual feelings of inferiority.

Willie leans forward in his office in Gutman Library, dodging the papers stacked a foot high on his desk. The 53-year-old sociologist shakes a finger to emphasize the most important lesson he has learned from observing the educational system--that the purpose of education is to develop people able to serve society, not people competing to attain standards of excellence, not people trying only to educate themselves, but people good enough to serve others.

"The best colleges and universities should be like the best hospitals. the best hospitals receive the individuals who have the most serious anomalies and illnesses and ailments, because they have people with extraordinary talent who can deal with these extraordinary problems. Educational institutions should have some of the same characteristics, of seeking out people who have extraordinary educational handicaps, because they have extraordinary circumstances to deal with these," Willie says.

Desegregation will help foster this ideal. Willie says that in general most Black colleges focus first on teaching service to society, secondly on actual instruction, and lastly on research and developing new knowledge. Most white colleges and universities have the opposite priorities. Desegregating these schools should ideally allow these philosophies to merge. "I've come to the conclusion that school desegregation has been the best experience this nation has ever had in terms of generating new educational thrusts for all people," Willie says.

Desegregation may also give whites a better appreciation of American government, Willie continues. Upper- and middle-class whites often used to ignore court orders they didn't like, but desegregation taught them the function of the courts. "If Plessy vs. Ferguson [the 1896 decision authorizing 'separate but equal' facilities fro Blacks and whites] had been obeyed, segregation would have ended of its own accord because it would have been too expensive," Willie explains.

The violence nationwide that has accompanied desegregation could have been avoided, Willie says, blaming legislatures and city officials opposed to integration for any disruptions. "There was no violence in place where the mayor, the school board, or the city council have told the public that the law would be maintained," Willie says. When violence broke out, city officials had usually opposed the court orders, although their opposition might not have been overt, he adds.

Saying that the economic backgrounds of students do not predict whether violence will erupt, Willie cites the conflicts over desegregation in Mobile, Ala., as an example of affluent whites becoming violent. He adds that the legal system had too long protected them from desegregation efforts.

Willie says he cannot predict how desegregation efforts will proceed under President Reagan's administration. He does admit, though, that "the new administration will take positive action only if it contains people who have first-hand knowledge of minorities"--knowledge most new appointees sorely lack. What's more, minorities must still have the resolve to fight for integration, even though they know they fact a time-consuming and painful struggle, Willie says.

That statement rings of the philosophy of the late Martin Luther King Jr., and Willie admits that the late civil rights leader inspired him. Both Willie and King graduated from Morehouse College in 1948. "In college he was very much like the rest of the students, which made his meteoric rise to fame really almost miraculous,' he says. Willie named his second child after his two heroes, Martin Luther King and theologian Martin Buber.

Willie himself has a theological background. From 1970-74, he was the vice president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church in the United States. He resigned after a highly publicized controversy in which he advocated the ordination of women in the church, even though the church canon did not specifically allow it. Willie says that, at that time, he was in-line to become the next president of the 3-million-member church and that he received numerous phone calls begging him not to participate in any service in which women were ordained. Willie says softly, "But I talked it over with my wife and decided if I was reluctant to participate in something fair and right because it would impair my opportunity to be elected to higher office, then that kind of selfishness was inappropriate."

That same motive led him to divest his stock in Eastman Kodak last summer, Willie says. He adds that it wasn't much stock--"10, 15, 20 shares"--but he sold it at a loss because he did not approve of Kodak's involvement with the government of South Africa. "I never told anybody about it publicly, because it wasn't that important," except as a symbol, he says.

Willie will return to Morehouse College in Atlanta next fall on a sabbatical. That move, he says, should benefit his three children more than himself, since it will expose them to the South. This decision seems to be based on much the same philosophy that underlies his faith in desegregation. Integration, after all, is no more than mixing different types of people together to form a diverse community.

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