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Jim Crow Still on Many Books

Unfortunately, Civil Rights-era segregation never officially died.
 
 
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At first glance the action of white school bus driver Delores Davis in Coushatta, Louisiana seemed so preposterous that many took it as a sick joke.

Davis made national news when she ordered a dozen black children to the back of her school bus. That ignited a firestorm of parent protest and rage. A shamed and embarrassed Red River Parish school board backpedaled fast and suspended Davis, promised an investigation, and ordered retraining for all bus drivers. Most chalked Davis's silly, mindless act up to a bad case of one person's insensitivity or just plain stupidity, and that it could only happen in a small, backwash town as Coushatta. That's hardly a sign that Jim Crow segregation is alive again.

The bitter truth is that it never totally died. The popular myth is that the 1964 civil rights bill, and the torrent of voting rights laws, affirmative action rulings, state and federal court decisions, and anti-discrimination lawsuits, over the years swept all segregation laws into history's dustbin. They didn't.

Three years after the 1964 civil rights bill ostensibly made legal segregation illegal, Southern cities tried to sneak laws onto the books upholding segregation. Sarasota, Florida, for instance, passed a city ordinance that authorized the police to arrest interracial bathers from the city's beaches. Though the Supreme Court outlawed miscegenation laws in dozens of states, some states kept the laws on the books for decades after. It took a voter referendum in Alabama in 2000 to repeal the state's anti-interracial marriage law.

And even then, 40 percent of the voters backed the law. Six years later, Alabama, and nearly ten other states keep Jim Crow laws on their books. Not all the states are in the South, and despite public embarrassment, and repeated demands to cleanse the books of them, state legislators, and even voters have resisted taking any action. While the laws are unenforceable, they aren't laughable, antique relics of a long buried racial past. They insult and degrade, and have had and still have a corrosive affect on law and public policy. In Georgia teachers that taught at once segregated private schools are eligible to collect state pensions, and as far as we know many of them are.

In Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia school officials can close integrated schools. Teachers in Louisiana that are jailed for opposing integrated schools can collect their full salaries. In South Carolina students that attend segregated public schools can get state and presumably federally supported tuition. Missouri designates a segregated reform school as a school for "Negroes." And West Virginia law limits the number of blacks that can be hired as school supervisors. There are almost certainly more such laws tucked away in the back of state statute books.

The time worn laws have defied countless efforts to get rid of them. The general consensus is that since they can't be enforced why bother with them, or as in Alabama, when a majority of white voters rejected repeal of the state's school segregation law in 2004, repeal opponents screamed that the issue wasn't race, but money, that it would cost the state millions in tax hikes to improve the schools. The Alabama Legislative Black Caucus pounded on the legislator to repeal the law. But that went nowhere. Two years later there is no indication that state lawmakers are any more inclined to dump the law. Even when state officials purge the old segregation laws from the books, they downplay their action as symbolic or merely righting a moral wrong. Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue called it "a symbolic gesture" when he signed legislation in 2005 that repealed four Jim Crow laws. They're more, much more than that.

Following the Supreme Court's Brown school desegregation decision in 1954, a wave of private whites only academies sprang up throughout the South and other places. State legislators passed laws that turned over public land and public buildings for the schools. That was a naked taxpayer giveaway to maintain segregation. Some of the schools are still in business, though not officially segregated, and that means that taxpayers in those states are still subsidizing them. Georgia is one of them. The state still must shell out millions in tax dollars to pay for pensions and benefits to teachers that taught at once private segregated schools. Perdue and Georgia legislators did not repeal the law that required those payments.

The known and unknown Jim Crow laws that are still on the books, and the reluctance, refusal, and downright resistance of state legislators and many voters to dump them are more than a hideous reminder of America's shameful racial past. They are a dangerous warning that at least part of that racial past is still alive and well and continues to impact law and public policy in many states. The laws are far more hurtful and insulting than anything that Delores Davis did.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.