• Phil Latham

The mistakes we make stay with us

Fifty years ago, the Tyler ISD school board fought integration with just about every resource it could muster.

Board members — either led by or hiding behind — Superintendent Jim Plyler tried about every tactic possible to stop or slow the process.

That was successful for at least six years. The district was ordered by the federal government to

integrate schools in 1965. This, of course, was a full 10 years after the Supreme Court made school integration the law of the land in Brown vs. Board of Education.

The board decided its “go-slow” policy, which would integrate one grade at a time, beginning with first grade. Six years later, the district was only 20%  integrated and it would have taken another six years to get the rest of the way.

If the board could have thought of another way to delay the process — any other way that might slip by the court — it would have done so.

That was never going to happen with U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice on the job but there were probably fervent prayers among board members — and not for the judge’s good health.

The judge decided that a biracial committee of citizens was needed to stand watch over the district, which further rankled the board. Tyler ISD tried to appeal that ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Then the board tried to battle busing to achieve integration.

The board lost on both counts.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the board that had to bear the brunt of results of that opposition. They just continued on their merry way, trying to stall integration as much as possible.

Who paid and continues to pay is the entire city of Tyler, but especially the people of color who didn’t get full access to education. 

Do not fool yourself into thinking that the education in a segregated Black school, formerly known as John Tyler High School, was the same as what students received at the former Robert E. Lee High School.

From 1954, when the court first ordered desegregation, until it really began to happen, no one did more than pretend the two systems were equal. After 1965, there was some attempt to begin to right this wrong but that did not happen in earnest until the early '70s.

By then, more than a generation of students had missed out on what they might have had.

All for what exactly?

You would have to ask those board members if the delaying tactics were worth what they have wrought — continued resentment and a searing split between white students and Black students and, for that matter, across the racial communities in Tyler.

It can be well summed up in the way the current Tyler ISD school board handled the ugly matter of name changes for Robert E. Lee High School. We’re not much closer to solving interracial problems today than 50 years ago.

Doing the right thing does not appear to have become any more popular today than it was 50 years ago.

This goes far beyond students, high schools and mascots, though. A near free-for-all almost erupted on the square in Tyler when dueling protests took place, one supposedly to “Back the Blue,” the other to protest unidentified federal officers arresting demonstrators in Portland, Oregon.

It was really simpler than that, though. This was liberals vs. supporters of Donald Trump. This was those who believe Black lives matter vs. those who are rankled by such an idea.

What if 50 years ago, the school board had willingly integrated schools and begun the long process of forging understanding between the races?

Might that have helped just a little during the high school naming mess and the demonstrations on the square?

We will never know. When you let opportunity pass by it’s gone, and 50 years later is too late to undo a mistake.

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