Nearly 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in public schools, lawyers are set to square off in a federal courtroom in eastern North Carolina over whether the effects of that Jim Crow past still persist.
A trial was to begin Monday in U.S. District Court in Greenville in the case of Everett v. Pitt County Board of Education.
A group of black parents represented by the UNC Center for Civil Rights will ask the court to reverse a 2011 student assignment plan they say effectively resegregated several schools in the district.
Lawyers for the Pitt schools will ask a judge to rule that the district has achieved "unitary status," meaning the "vestiges of past discrimination have been eliminated to the extent practicable." The designation would end federal oversight of the Pitt schools, in place since the 1960s.
This case is the first of its kind brought in North Carolina since 1999. More than 100 school districts across the South are still under federal court supervision. The decision in the Pitt case is expected to be widely followed by those other school systems.
Mark Dorosin, the managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, said the case is a critical test of the continued viability of one of the most fundamental principles of school desegregation: That school districts still under court order must remedy the lasting vestiges of racial discrimination.
"These districts can't just rely on the passage of time and wait out these orders, they must develop and implement policies that remedy the continuing legacy of racial disparities in all aspects of their schools," Dorosin said last week. "Once a district is declared unitary and the desegregation order is lifted, although school administrators can still utilize race conscious measures to ensure diverse schools, few are willing to do so. The sad reality is that, as a result, many districts quickly resegregate."
Nearly half of the more than 23,000 students in the Pitt County schools are black, while about 38 percent are white, according to statistics from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. In late 2010, the district approved a school assignment plan for 2011-12 that left several schools with a high percentage of minority students.
That plan was opposed by the Pitt County Coalition for Educating Black Children, the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit. They point to examples such as a newly opened elementary school in Greenville where less than 10 percent of the students are white, according to state statistics. Meanwhile, schools in other parts of the county remain mostly white.
In court filings, the Pitt schools argue that the system as a whole is as racially balanced to the "fullest extent practicable." Though they concede a few schools are "imbalanced," the system says that is the result of "demographic change or geographic isolation and not illegitimate action."
Of the 12 elected representatives on the current board, three are black.
"The board no longer operates any school that could be accurately labeled a 'one race' school," the school system says in a brief filed last week. "New school construction and renovations have been distributed throughout the county so that minority students have benefited equally from modern, functional facilities."