Political Use of Racial Narratives: School Desegregation in Mobile, Alabama 1954-1997
reviewed by Anthony D. Greene - April 14, 2009
Title: Political Use of Racial Narratives: School Desegregation in Mobile, Alabama 1954-1997
Author(s): Richard A. Pride
Publisher: University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign
ISBN: 0252027663, Pages: 336, Year: 2002
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With the 1954 Brown decision, the Supreme Court declared that separate schools for white and black children were inherently unequal. The premise behind the Brown decision was that resources in black and white schools were unequal, and as a consequence separate schools denied blacks access to future social, economic, and political resources. The resources that were readily accessible to whites did not equally translate in the lives of racial-ethnic minorities, particularly blacks. Desegregation plans were slow to manifest, and from the 1960s through the early 1990s increasing numbers of districts implemented either voluntary or court ordered desegregation plans as a means of creating more equal school systems. In fact, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964) required all districts that were historically segregated to voluntarily desegregate their school systems, even if they were not under court order (Douglas, 1995). Federal efforts were implanted to enforce school desegregation, however the Civil Rights Act had repercussions for how students were later educated, particularly in the South. Consequently, many southern school districts, which were previously the most segregated districts in the nation, were more desegregated than they had previously been. In fact, some southern school districts became even more desegregated than districts in other parts of the country . Richard A. Pride captures the political discourse and racial intolerance that resulted from efforts to integrate schools in Mobile, Alabama.
Richard A. Prides book, The Political Use of Racial Narratives: School Desegregation in Mobile, Alabama, is a critical analysis of the historiography of Mobile, Alabamas school desegregation efforts over four decades. As in many cities, especially in the southern states, Mobile reflected the strong southern tradition of segregation thereby significantly resisting the integration of its public schools. Pride provides great detail from primary and secondary resources (i.e., newspapers, documents) that highlight Mobiles efforts. He presents this work in a manner that allows the reader to easily follow the chronological steps in which Mobile eventually became a desegregated school district. In this chronology he intrinsically examines the racial uproar and the political discontent that resulted from the 1954 Brown decision.
I found Prides book to be very well written with more than ample sources to support his main argument of school desegregation efforts. For example, discussing the political control southern whites maintained and the insurmountable odds blacks faced to gain some political control over desegregation efforts (i.e., black members on the school board) indicates the struggle and the stronghold that Mobiles political elite had over its school district. Pride points to instances where even some affluent and powerful whites were themselves unable to mobilize desegregation efforts. The story of Dorothy DuPont and her efforts to enroll her adopted daughter, who was black, into Mobile schools exemplifies the political and racial struggle many southern cities faced. DuPonts daughter was well educated, having received some formal schooling in Europe, but was denied enrollment in an all white school. DuPont stated,
I have brought up Carrie Mae myself since she was six-and-a-half years old. Her background academically, morally, and socially is adequate for her entrance into an integrated school. The psychological effect on her would be good as she has attended schools with white pupils for two years now. (p. 27)
Pride describes how the culture and politics of that era used jargon and rhetoric to discard DuPonts efforts to integrate her child into Mobiles schools. Here was an affluent white woman of some power in Mobile; however, the idea of blacks and whites attending the same schools continued to be socially and politically unacceptable, several years after the Brown decision.
Prides book is an accurately documented account of school desegregation efforts in Alabama. More importantly, it reflects a rich history of white southern tradition in how the power elite fought vigorously to keep its schools segregated. However, the story of political struggles and the potential threat to cultural and social norms that desegregation presented is not an untold story. I argue that, albeit some differences are apparent, many southern school districts, particularly in larger southern cities, had similar struggles and battles that were prominent similar to Mobile, Alabama. I applaud the author for highlighting several other significant desegregation efforts that were taking place, particularly in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The Political Use of Racial Narratives: School Desegregation in Mobile, Alabama 1954-1997 displays a rich analysis of the role of racial narratives in examining the political discourse and public support for and against school desegregation efforts. I believe this book would be a valuable resource for students who study race and education, particularly at the graduate level. This is a great addition to the historiography of school desegregation and education in the post-Brown era. Also, the book does a wonderful job of showing the connection between the effects of school desegregation in the late 1950s through the 1970s and its impact on the struggle for school districts today trying to improve education for all children.
Douglas, D. A. (1995). Reading, writing and race: The desegregation of the Charlotte schools. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Orfield, G. & Eaton, S. E. (1996). Dismantling desegregation: The quiet reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: New Press.