Liddell at 40: Conference Celebrates Landmark School Desegregation Case Hero, Examines Urban Education’s Future
On February 18, 1972, an unassuming African American woman named Minnie Liddell filed a class action lawsuit that would forever change public education in St. Louis. What Liddell did not know that February day was that the case, Liddell v. Board of Education of the City of St. Louis, would consume almost 30 years of her life. But with no legal training and very limited resources, she charged the racially segregated St. Louis Public Schools with violating the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause—the 1868 language originally written to protect the rights of newly freed slaves.
The legacy of Minnie Liddell’s remarkable court case was examined recently at the law school program “Liddell is 40! Commemorating the Desegregation Movement in St. Louis and a Look at the Future of Urban Education.” Organized by Professor Kim Norwood, “Liddell is 40!” brought together scholars, members of Liddell’s legal team and family, and the judge who ultimately signed the settlement that led to St. Louis’s historic and innovative desegregation plan.
“My goal for the conference was to pay respect to the courage of Minnie Liddell in particular, and parents like Minnie Liddell generally, who sacrificed everything for the right to a quality education for all black children attending unequal public schools in St. Louis. I also wanted to spend some time looking at where St Louis currently stands and where the whole issue of equal access to quality public education stands nationally” Norwood said.
Other conference participants included:
John Wright, former interim superintendent of the Saint Louis Public Schools, established the historical context for Liddell. Reminding the audience that slaves had been auctioned on the steps of the city’s courthouse downtown, he described the tangled web of segregated housing and education practices that made St. Louis an “apartheid city” where only the zoo, library, and public transportation were integrated. It was also a city where the gulf between de jure and de facto segregation yawned widely. While the historic 1948 Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer theoretically ended racial segregation in housing practices, in reality real estate agents continued to “steer” African Americans to small parts of the city, separate from whites. The failure of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex added fuel to the fire. The result was overcrowded African American neighborhoods that led to overcrowded, underfunded, and understaffed African American schools.
This was the environment that Minnie Liddell’s son, Craton, faced as he started elementary school in the early 1970s. No fewer than four judges would hear aspects of Liddell’s crusade to desegregate the St. Louis Public Schools between then and the final settlement in February of 1999.
The original, 1983 settlement consisted of three parts: a voluntary plan of pupil exchange between the schools, the merger of a vocational-technical program, and additional money put into the schools.
“Then-Missouri Attorney General John Ashcroft fought us every step of the way,” recalled Professor Bruce La Pierre, who served as Special Master for the desegregation case.
At the conference, Judge Stephen Limbaugh, Sr.—the last judge to hear the case and the judge who signed the order for the 1999 settlement—remembered Minnie Liddell’s words to him: “I’ve outlived three judges on this case so far. I don’t want to outlive a fourth—but the odds aren’t in your favor!”
After several motions were filed by the state to end the financial obligations imposed upon it in the 1983 agreement, talks for a revised settlement—a final one dismissing the litigation from court supervision—began in 1997. The key sticking point in those negotiations involved the matter of money and who would pay to continue any desegregation efforts. Ultimately, the district court approved a final settlement in February 1999. The settlement was reached thanks to guidance from former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth. New legislation (in the form of SB 781) signed by then-Governor Mel Carnahan, a tax increase passed by St. Louis city voters, and a fairness hearing also helped pave the way.
But that is not the end of the story.
In 2007, after the St. Louis City schools lost their accreditation, Jane Turner, a St. Louis city resident whose children attended neighboring Clayton schools under private tuition agreements, filed suit against the Clayton School District. According to a Missouri statute, if a public school loses accreditation, the resident pupil in that failing school or district has the right to attend an accredited school in an adjoining county.
Under the terms of that statute, as interpreted by the Missouri Supreme Court, the failing district must pay to the transferee district the cost to educate that child in the new district. The failing district must also provide transportation. Accordingly, the transferee school “shall” admit the child.
“While the language of the statute provides some hope to parents of children who currently attend unaccredited schools, both St Louis City and several surrounding St. Louis County districts, most notably Clayton—the primary defendant in the Turner case—do not agree with the Missouri Supreme Court’s interpretation,” Norwood says.
The St. Louis City district believes the court’s interpretation could bankrupt the district, while simultaneously preventing it from regaining accreditation. The Clayton district maintains that if the county is forced to take on city students, its resources would be depleted. Arguably, the transferee district would have to hire new teachers, provide additional resources, and build additional facilities. Among other defenses, Clayton district attorneys have also joined forces with intervening taxpayers contending that the statute violates an amendment to the state’s Constitution known as the Hancock Amendment.
On May 1, 2012 a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the Clayton School District. The Missouri Attorney General is expected to appeal the ruling, leading to further delays in the education of children currently attending unaccredited schools. Turner v. Clayton School District will impact the Kansas City school district as well, which lost its accreditation in 2011.
Meanwhile, the desegregation issue has become one of student choice as much as desegregation. About a quarter of public school students in St. Louis City choose to attend charter schools. Affluent families have a choice of charter schools, private schools, or one of the city’s magnet schools. However, “choice” has its limitations.
“Integration is achievable,” said Professor Wendy Parker, “but choice will not get us there.”
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By Timothy J. Fox