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Symposium will look back 40 years at school desegregation case

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 20, 2012 - Attorney Bill Douthit remembers the moment that he knew the St. Louis area’s voluntary school desegregation plan had made a real difference.

Douthit is part of a phalanx of lawyers involved in litigation that began four decades ago, when a north St. Louis mother named Minnie Liddell got fed up with having her children moved from school to school to school. At one court session, he heard a phrase that told him alliances and attitudes had made a definite shift.

“The most heartening part when I became involved in the case in 1994 was hearing several of the county superintendents talking about our kids,” Douthit recalled. “They weren’t talking about black kids or white kids but about a desire to treat all kids equally.”

That desire motivated Liddell and a legion of parents, attorneys and others to battle through the courts and eventually establish the desegregation plan that still thrives today, allowing thousands of students to move from schools in the city to those in the suburbs, as well as transferring the other way.

It all grew out of the persistence of Minnie Liddell, whose stubborn refusal to accept what was being done to her children will be discussed at a symposium at Washington University Thursday to mark the 40th anniversary of the lawsuit filed in the name of her son Craton on Feb. 18, 1972.

Organizer Kimberly Jade Norwood, a professor at the university's law school who has taken a special interest in urban education, said it was important for people to know how the local school choice landscape came to be.

“We absolutely need to do more to let people know how we got to where we are,” she said. “People don’t get it. The sacrifices that she made are so moving to me. I am so sorry I didn’t get to meet her. I see her picture, and my eyes water up.

“It’s so mind-blowing to me. All of these suits are 20 and 30 and 40 years old. Imagine the commitment of people who stick with something like this for that long. These things are crazy grueling. It took forever to get some relief. You don’t do this for your kids. You do this for your future.”

In the case of Liddell, though all five of her children were in school as the case slogged through the legal system, her youngest, Michael, got the most benefit. Born in 1976, he now lives in Florissant and is working to keep the spirit of his mother’s achievements alive – and encourage other parents to match her example.

“Being a parent myself now,” he said, “I see that as the main problem. No one wants to see their child not succeed. They may not have the educational skill set to know how to help them themselves, so knowing where to go is very important.

“Sometimes, you can’t get all the answers you need from a guidance counselor. I want to do research myself and find that information for parents.”

A letter in the mailbox

Minnie Liddell’s crusade began in 1971, when she got a letter saying that once again, Craton and his younger siblings would be shipped to another school, this one farther than home from ever in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. News of the transfers spread through the neighborhood, and so did the anger.

About 100 neighbors gathered in a church to plot strategy. They tried to meet with school board members or the area superintendent but were shot down. They picketed. They called a boycott. But when the school year began, many parents caved in and put their kids on the bus to faraway Bates School.

Not the Liddell group. Their children learned at home for weeks and won a small victory when school officials allowed them to enroll at a closer school. But that only whetted their appetite for more change and more control over their children’s education. They held barbecues and dances and raffles to raise filing fees, found two lawyers and went to federal court alleging discrimination against black students through boundaries that resulted in segregation.

As the spotlight shone more brightly on her and her family, Liddell became more sophisticated and more confident in her cause. Eventually, the NAACP and the Justice Department became involved, struggling against a competing group of white families and the state of Missouri, which was charged with establishing and allowing the segregation.

After losing at the district court level, the Liddell side won in federal appeals court in March 1980. First, a citywide busing plan was drawn up sending students to different parts of the city to achieve integration for the St. Louis Public Schools. Eventually, St. Louis County districts joined, under the implied threat of being targets themselves.

A 1999 settlement agreement brought a formal end to the case, but the city-county busing plan continues, with more than 5,000 city students going to county schools each day and about 100 making the reverse trip to city magnet schools.

Minnie Liddell isn’t here to see the continued results of her struggle; she died in 2004. Her oldest son, Craton, had died in 2002 after a series of health problems.

Happy, but still dissatisfied

Douthit says that if Minnie Liddell could see what has resulted from the lawsuit, she would be pleased but not altogether satisfied.

“I think Minnie would be happy,” he said, “just to know that there are parents out there pushing for the best education for their kids. The transfer program has been a very strong success. It’s parent-driven, so parents can make educational decisions on behalf of their children. Unfortunately, it has affected a small number of parents, both black and white.”

With the city schools unaccredited, and the possibility of transfers to accredited county schools being weighed by the courts, the educational puzzle in St. Louis remains unsolved.

“My biggest regret,” Douthit says, “is when I look at the progress and at what has happened at the non-integrated schools. It has become generational. A high level of quality education didn’t get to all those families. But we’re making progress.”

To Norwood, that progress remains slow, and with few parents willing to make their children part of an educational experiment that might take years to get results, she is frustrated at the slow pace.

“From a parent’s perspective,” she said, “you want the best for your kids. People aren’t going to put their kids in a school now if it doesn’t have books and doesn’t have this and doesn’t have that, hoping it eventually will all pan out. Their kids won’t be there by then. That’s a serious sacrifice to make.

“Even if you get a critical mass, and you live in the city and say with 30 of your friends that we’re going to put our kids in Vashon or Sumner, nothing is going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a long time before you see some improvement and a lot of people are not willing to risk their children for a future generation.”

To her, the history of the case can be divided into three parts.

“There are the group that participated in desegregation, the group that participated in the magnet schools and the group that stayed in their own schools,” she said. “For the students who stayed in their own schools, relief was slow indeed, if it came at all. It seems like they got the worst part of the deal.”

A personal legacy

Now a parent himself, of a girl and a newborn son, Michael Liddell sees his mother’s crusade from a new perspective. And he plans to set up a nonprofit group for parents to make their push for a quality education for their children less difficult.

“We would work closely with parents in both the city and the county to guide them to different resources and get them they help they need,” he said. “We would show them what is out there, whether it’s college or vocational training.”

There is a lot more school choice for parents today, with charters and the deseg program. But the issue remains the same: a good education. Michael says his mother’s focus was always making that education available in the city.

“She was always about keeping things in her community,” he said. “That was her main focus. With times being different now, and lines starting to blur, she would see the reason that is happening. There are a lot more things to think about and a lot more opportunity for kids to be able to go to college.”

Michael says his big brother Craton was trying to help his mother’s dream come true. After a lot of false starts, toward the end of his life he was a few classes away from getting certification as a teacher and had already gained a job as a permanent substitute.

But he wasn’t doing it as the symbol of school desegregation in St. Louis.

“The one thing about Craton was that he never really cared about the fact that it was being done in his name,” Michael said. “He did care about being an example. He didn’t want things to be done to kids that had been done to him. He was always giving advice to parents and kids so they would not be in the same situation he was in.

“If he were alive today, he would definitely be doing everything he could to help get accreditation back.”

And if his mother were alongside him, Douthit said, she would never stop crusading for her cause.

“Working with her,” he said, “the one point she was always pushing me toward was I should always be willing to work with parents. She gave me very sage advice. She was always making that late-night phone call as I was heading home. It was mandatory I give her that update and not wait until the next morning. She wanted the update, and she also wanted to make sure I made it safely home.

“There will never be another Minnie, but we do still have strong parents who will stand up and say, this is what I think is best for my child. I miss her a lot.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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