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Kelly v. Board of Education

This lawsuit filed by several African American families in 1955 to desegregate the Nashville public schools dramatically altered education patterns, and its various remedies continue to generate debate. The longest-running case in Tennessee history (the federal court in Nashville still has jurisdiction over the suit in January 1997), Kelly v. Board of Education was prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education which outlawed the separate system of white and black schools nationally.

In 1957 the Nashville federal court approved a grade-a-year plan whereby African American first graders would attend formerly white schools. Several white groups resisted the plan, and there was some scattered violence. City officials, church leaders of both races, and educators strove for consensus and progress. Nevertheless, Nashville schools made minimal progress in overall desegregation even after the 1962 establishment of metropolitan government unified city and county schools. African American lawyers Z. Alexander Looby and Avon N. Williams Jr. brought the plaintiffs' case before the district court several times to object to delays and ineffective plans.

In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court approved busing to achieve racial balance in a North Carolina case. Federal authorities then introduced busing to the Nashville desegregation case and prepared to move children of both races to "paired" schools. The busing of fifteen thousand students met widespread criticism, mostly from whites. Private schools quickly sprang up, and by 1978 white public school enrollment had dropped by twenty thousand students.

Further hearings, negotiations, plans and appeals continued until 1983, when the school board and the court approved a new comprehensive desegregation plan. This plan was based on student age and projected a goal of 18 to 48 percent black enrollment. Continued white flight to private and neighboring county schools impeded the plan, leading to modifications and refinements that included the creation of specialized "magnet" schools.

In 1995-96 a new plan, "Commitment to the Future," proposed massive upgrading and enrichment of the Nashville schools. As the decade closed, Nashvillians were still struggling to find a way to provide equal educational opportunities for all.

Suggested Reading

Richard A. Pride and J. David Woodard, The Burden of Busing: The Politics of Desegregation in Nashville, Tennessee (1985).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010