This article originally appeared in our April 2008 issue.
"Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity."
—From "Where Do We Go From Here?" a speech delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, August 16, 1967
Mary McMullen Francis doesn’t remember many details of August 30, 1961: the dress she wore or what her mother said before she walked out the door or the names of her teachers. But she remembers how eerily empty the street was of cars and people. She had half-expected—or at least worried—that some angry white folks would show up with tomatoes or baseball bats or just a mouthful of spit. No one was there.
The city’s leaders had decreed that Atlanta’s schools would be desegregated peacefully. So when Mary McMullen and Lawrence Jefferson, both seniors, became the first black students to enter Grady High School, arriving in class ten minutes late as planned by organizers of Atlanta’s heavily publicized school integration, they gazed straight ahead. No one said a word.
In fact, even at the end of the remarkably quiet day, even at a press conference with such national broadcasting greats as Chet Huntley, even when she came home to her own neighborhood in the old Grady Homes housing project, no one asked, “How was your day?”
“Even in my own community, it was as if it never happened,” recalls Mary, sixty-three, now a Spanish teacher in the DeKalb County school system. “It’s something that’s going on, but we never talked about it. The city made it known that nobody wanted you to talk about it.”
After the final bell, a handful of students make their way to Lee Pope’s U.S. history class. “Social Diversity Club Meets Here,” reads a handwritten sign posted on the door. Inside, founding fathers gaze somberly from the walls as about a dozen kids gather to talk about race. This is a touchy subject, one most people strive to overlook, as if acknowledging race is itself racist. But this classroom is a rare place where whites and blacks speak without fear of offending each other.
Taylor Fulton, sixteen, a junior, raises a point of contention: the segregation of the lunch period. Although black and white students mingle at Grady more readily than at most schools, the terraces above the courtyard are mostly “white” and the cafeteria is mostly “black.” Recently, a literature class and a U.S. history class held a Thanksgiving lunch in the cafeteria. A teacher noticed that all the white kids sat at one table and the black kids sat at another. She threatened to forbid them to eat their lunch until the group mixed it up. No one wanted to move. “Is this intentional? Is this something that just sort of happens?” asks Taylor, who is black. “Is it something that makes people feel excluded? Is it something that makes people feel comfortable?”
“Anybody of a different color can sit at our table. It’s just that we don’t like sitting outside,” replies Kourtney Outlaw, fourteen, a ninth-grader.
Confronting race is brave and personal, and this room has the instant intimacy of a support group. “I didn’t see my first white person until I came to Grady,” says Taylor, with a touch of overstatement. She went to Centennial Place Elementary, a nearly all-black school near Georgia Tech, and had no white friends until she went to Inman Middle School, the Virginia-Highland/Morningside middle school that is one of the feeder schools for Grady. The “never again” button she wears on her lapel shows how deeply she is affected by the people she meets. She got the button at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on a trip sponsored by the Atlanta chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, which also supports the Grady High School Social Diversity Club. Taylor wears the button as a reminder of the dangers of extreme racism.
Kourtney moved to Atlanta from Fayetteville. At Inman, she says, “they called me ‘the white girl’ because I have an enhanced vocabulary and I talk correctly.”
There are only two white kids in this room, and Chris Cruz, sixteen, is one of them. A junior who has one Hispanic parent and one Anglo parent, he says he only knew white people until he came to Inman, which is 38 percent white and 62 percent students of color. “I think Inman taught me to be friends with people of other races,” he says. “I see personality, I see soul. I don’t look at people and assume things about them.” He adds, “I think blacks are pressured more than whites are. In a way, they’re pressured not to be friends with white people.”
The kids go on to vent about the way race subtly affects the cliques and social dynamics of high school, about the barriers black students face and those they create for themselves. The honesty in the room is palpable and fresh. It is almost shocking.
Forty-six years after Atlanta’s desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race can’t be a consideration in schools, even in the name of creating diversity. Education is meant to be race-neutral. And by extension, so should we. But here are teenagers who see their world as it is, confront the subtler realities of race relations—and refuse to accept that they cannot be changed.
“Separate but equal” was the watchword of the segregationists back when Mary McMullen Francis integrated Grady High School. Today, Atlanta’s schools are still marked by separateness and inequality, the imbalance that comes from stereotypes or socioeconomic class or other forces beyond the school. But if King returned today and walked these halls, he would find glimmers of hope. The Social Diversity Club is one of them.
The students brainstorm about what to do about the lingering racial separation at Grady. They want to wake up the high school world of jocks and geeks and goths and blacks and whites and Hispanics and Asians.
One idea: holding a “Politically Incorrect Day” in which Social Diversity Club members post signs that say “Whites Only” or “Blacks Only” or even a racially offensive statement. “We just want people to understand that racism hurts, to offend people who offend others,” explains Chris.
Their teacher, Lee Pope, who is white, isn’t so sure about that idea. “That freaks me out,” he says, perhaps imagining the world outside this room isn’t quite ready for that kind of confrontation. “We’ll have to talk about it some more.”
As the students leave, they agree to bring three friends to the next meeting to boost attendance. “I’m going to try to bring a black, a white, and a Hispanic,” Kourtney pledges.