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Oliver V. Kalamazoo Board of Education

The following is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the Kalamazoo Public Schools desegregation case (Oliver v. Kalamazoo Board of Education), but rather an abridged, introductory timeline of events and issues connected to this historically significant case. For further reading, see Sources.


Background Context

By 1968, fourteen years after the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) made school segregation (“separate but equal”) unconstitutional, school boards all across the country were facing the challenge of how to conform to the legal standard, and thus ensure that their school districts were racially balanced. So, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960’s, when racial tensions were running high throughout the community and within the school system, school officials began to take stock of how decades of neighborhood segregation had caused deep social inequalities along racial lines. Forced into making wholesale changes to the district, the Board of Education formed a committee with the goal of analyzing the achievement imbalances associated with segregated schools, and to offer up reform strategies that would have the effect of keeping the school district legally compliant.

1968-1969

“The Citizens’ Racial Balance Committee (RBC) was charged by the Board of Education to work out a program to achieve a mixed student body in our classrooms. We were asked to find a way to bring together students of various economic, racial and social backgrounds and educational aspirations.” (Report, p.1) The biracial committee was appointed by the board, with members representing a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and genders.

After several months of analyzing school data, speaking with experts in the field of education and sociology, visiting schools in the district, speaking with local groups of concerned citizens and civic leaders, the committee’s first challenge was in fashioning solutions to the problem of racially concentrated neighborhoods. Kalamazoo’s black population had for years been restricted to the northside neighborhood, where low-income housing was most obtainable, but also the result of restrictive housing covenants, discriminatory real estate practices, and Federal redlining programs. After compiling housing and school statistics from school administrators, the committee’s published report bluntly stated, “These figures illustrate the extent to which racial segregation exists in the Kalamazoo school district.” (Report, p.3) The facts were clear, most black students were grouped together in several schools, while other schools were almost entirely comprised of white students. The way in which district boundaries were established, were by their very nature, de facto segregation according to the committee. The committee’s findings also drew attention to academic struggles facing black students attending schools with a mostly white composite, suggesting that a mixture of factors were contributing to academic disparities, with segregated housing being only one.

In August of 1969, the committee’s findings were published in a 23-page report detailing the challenges that economically and geographically “isolated” black students faced in accessing a reasonably fair education. Time was of the essence according to the report, and the sooner the board moved to implement a plan for school integration, the better the outcomes would be for elementary age children. The committee stressed the importance of recognizing the momentous impact that such change would bring to students and families, and therefore they outlined five preparatory steps to be implemented prior to the phases of the integration plan.

“The members of this committee cannot, in good faith, endorse any plan for school integration unless significant progress is made to prepare for such a plan in the coming year. The Board of Education and the superintendent must be strongly committed to bring about progress in the following five areas:

  1. Vigorous recruitment of minority group teachers and counselors
  2. In-service training of teachers and administrative staff to understand and accept students who do not conform to white middle class standards
  3. Recruitment and upgrading of minority group persons to administrative positions
  4. Modification and enrichment of school curricula to make education more meaningful to the students and our times
  5. Communicating to students, parents and the general community on the serious nature of segregation problems and on the steps being taken to solve them” (Report, p.5)

The report concluded with a detailed, three-phase proposal for achieving racially equitable schools, that if approved by the board, would be rolled out over two years, leading up to the 1971 school year. The three phases would focus on corrective busing and redistricting, hiring of more black staff, in-service training for staff, and reviewing of curriculums. Board of education and RBC member Edward P. Thompson, an advocate for the plan, was optimistic after the report was published when interviewed by the Gazette, stating “I’m so sure the community will determine to solve the problem that we WILL solve the problem. Give exposure to the real problem and with proper leadership, I think the community will want to solve the problem.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 11-4-08

At a September board meeting, the suggested preparatory steps outlined in the report, and Phase 1 and 2 of the integration plan were voted on by the board, and approved by a 6 to 1 vote. The vote allowed for the board to continue to fact find and debate the pros and cons of the report’s suggestions. Despite some collective agreement about the report’s proposals, board members continued to debate the report through the fall. Consensus had not been reached. The report was also widely discussed and debated at publicly attended meetings throughout the community.

1970-1971

In May of 1970, Kalamazoo schools closed for three days “in the wake of racial tensions and disruptions which have plagued the schools this week.” (Kalamazoo Gazette, 5-9-70).

In December of 1970, the Kalamazoo Gazette profiled a parent group opposed to racially balanced schools. The group’s spokesperson, Jack Hoekstra, said “the main complaint of the group is that school officials did not consult parents and students when they formed the integration plan.” Hoekstra also added that schools “should be neighborhood oriented and not racially oriented.”

January of 1971, the Kalamazoo Board of Education approved a racial balance plan for Central and Loy Norrix high schools with a 6 to 1 vote. Later in the month, a vote of 4-3 approved the racial balance plan for junior high schools. Despite progress on developing a busing plan for the junior and high schools, community support for retaining the segregated-neighborhood model for the elementary schools continued to gain traction.

Kalamazoo Gazette, 7-9-71

In April of 1971, Edward P. Thompson, disturbed by the growing support to dismantle the plan to desegregate all schools, addressed the board with a lengthy, impassioned statement, calling for a “prompt” ending to segregation. On April 7th, the Kalamazoo Gazette printed Thompson’s statement in its entirety. A small portion follows:

“The high school problem is real, but it shrinks to insignificance  when compared to the fact that in our elementary schools we are educating children in such racial and economic isolation that we are condemning many children to second rate education and all children to continued racial tensions. Racial and economic isolation are harmful to education. On the other hand in a school with a full range of aptitude and achievement levels, the underachieving child is helped while the normally achieving child is unhurt.”

“But there is another educational problem more immediate than that of balancing achievement levels. The problem is that in 1971 we are still a racially segregated school district. Everyone must know by now that our children are coming through elementary school alienated from and even fearing those of a different skin color. These fears mold their behavior. Fear begets hostility, hostility begets more fear. This problem becomes even more severe when we place black and white children together for the first time in their adolescent years, their most difficult time of growth and adjustment.” (KG, 4-7-71)

On May 7th 1971, the Kalamazoo Board of Education adopted a “mandatory racial balance plan”, on a 4-0 vote (with three abstentions). Jack Hoekstra and Dr. Dale Pattison, two of the more prominent community voices opposed to the mandatory plan, ran for seats on the board with an anti-integration platform, suggesting to their supporters that they would work to nullify the May 7th resolution. Both candidates won seats on the board. Also, at the June election, district voters rejected a millage request by a 2-1 ratio.

After the results of the June 14th election, a majority of school board members broke with the previous board’s position on integration, and voided the mandatory plan. The new majority of board members favored a “voluntary open enrollment plan” instead, and a return to previous district boundaries. Driven by the fear that such a plan would rollback the board’s previous commitment to enacting the 1969 report’s recommendations, the local branch of the NAACP filed suit against the Board of Education on behalf of 25 Kalamazoo parents and children. Former Kalamazoo mayor Robert Jones’ stepdaughter, Michele Oliver, became forever linked to desegregation efforts when Jones and his family agreed to be one of the class action plaintiffs.

On August 12th, Federal District Court Chief Judge Noel P. Fox enters a preliminary injunction against the Board of Education, forcing the school district to promptly continue with its implementation of the approved balancing plan from May 17th. The new school board appealed Fox’s order, only to lose again on August 30th at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The integration and busing plan went into effect despite vocal opposition by anti-busing protesters.

1973

On October 4th, U.S. Federal District Court Chief Judge Noel P. Fox ruled in favor of the appellees, who were represented by the national office of the NAACP. “In his 1973 ruling on Oliver v. Kalamazoo Board of Education, Fox said the district deliberately segregated black students. He cited numerous examples.” (KG, 2-9-03) The Board of Education once again appealed Fox’s decision.

“Plaintiff’s application seeks extension of the injunctive order of August 12, direction of implementation of the plan of school desegregation adopted by the Kalamazoo Board in its earlier resolution of May 7, 1971, and an injunction restraining the defendants from further school construction and requiring assignment of school faculty and staff personnel so as to achieve racial balance for the purpose of acquiring equal opportunity for education and quality education.

Having examined numerous documentary exhibits, attendance zone maps, administrative studies, and having heard the testimony of several witnesses over a two-day period, and the oral arguments of counsel, this Court finds the following factual circumstances:

The schools maintained and operated by the Kalamazoo Board of Education are racially segregated. There appears no dispute as to the fact that five elementary schools — Lincoln, Woodward, Edison, Roosevelt, and Northglade — are predominantly populated by black  students, although the population of the Kalamazoo School District as a whole is merely approximately 17.6 percent black. The remaining twenty-four schools are predominantly “white” schools. According to 1970 school census.

Thus we begin this decision confronted with the undisputed fact that Negro black children are being deprived of quality education in the Kalamazoo School System, and that early deprivation of innocent young children culminates in permanent, devastating, irreparable harm — harm incapable of subsequent correction…”–excerpt from Judge Fox’s opinion

1974

On December 9th, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Fox’s order, forcing the defendants to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

1975

On May 12th, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case, affirming the District Court’s order.

1991

Oliver v. Kalamazoo Board of Education was amended to allow for desegregation by using magnet schools. Lincoln Elementary is converted into the district’s first magnet school and school attendance boundaries are redrawn.


Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, June of 2022

Sources
Articles

“Michele Oliver and Kalamazoo School Desegregation”

Encore Magazine, November 2007, p.42

“Parent Group Fights Racial Balance”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 December, 1970

“Kalamazoo Schools to Close for 3 Days”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 May, 1970

“Junior High Racial Balance Plan OK’d”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 19 January, 1971

“Text of Thompson’s Desegregation Statement”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 April, 1971

“Housewives Report 9 to 1 Opposition to Bussing”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 4 May, 1971

“Black Leaders’ Concerns Over Balance Plan Aired”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 5 May, 1971

“Citizens Speak Out On School Integration Plan”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 7 May, 1971

“NAACP Starting Suit, Original School Racial Plan Asked”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 12 August, 1971

“Separate, Unequal System Led to Court Order”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 February, 2003

“Desegregation: 32 Years Later”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 9 February, 2003


Books

Report of the Racial Balance Committee, 1969 (H 379.774 K14CI)


Local History Room Files

Subject File: School Desegregation

Name File: Thompson, Edward P.


Online

Oliver v. Kalamazoo Board of Education

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