Springfield School District desegregation order (1976)

McPherson (1998)

McPherson (1998)

The Rev. Negil McPherson filed suit against the Springfield School District in April 1974, accusing the district of “numerous deliberate actions all of which boiled down to creating, fostering, and maintaining racial and ethnic segregation in the Springfield, Illinois, public schools.” That December, the two parties filed a consent decree in which the district admitted that Springfield’s public schools were racially segregated and, because of past actions, the district was responsible for it.

Both the plaintiffs and the district submitted proposals to correct the problem, and U.S. District Judge J. Waldo Ackerman (1926-84) on Dec. 7, 1976, ruled on steps to remedy the discrimination.

The school board’s proposals for the middle and high schools were acceptable to both sides. The crux of their differences involved elementary schools — kindergarten through sixth grade.

Ackerman largely accepted the plaintiffs’ proposed structure. Here is his reasoning:

First of all, I am convinced that the school board is in perfectly good faith in presenting this part of the plan as well as in their conduct throughout these entire proceedings. That being true, their plan is entitled to great weight. But it is my duty to carefully examine each option and to choose the best one, after considering all factors. So, I approach this task with the principal idea that whatever plan is most fair to all involved must be ordered implemented. After all, this is what the Constitution is all about. If the plan is to work it must not be (or seem to be) less fair to some than to others. This is the underpinning of the opinion.

In keeping the “neighborhood concept” in its K-3 plan the school board has paired or clustered the black schools at the center of the city with the white schools in close proximity to them. This leaves these schools with black populations ranging between 34.6% to 31.7%. The effects of this plan, when charted on a map of the school district, show that clear and dramatic problems would be created. While the schools in and near the center of the city are integrated with each other, the schools on the outer edges of the circle have minority percentages between 2.6% and 10.3%. It is apparent that with the geographic facts of this city, in order to keep the “neighborhood school” concept some schools will be integrated and some will not. That is sure to be perceived by many to be obviously unfair. Though it is a result and not intentional, those schools not included in integration happen to be located generally in the higher socio-economic areas. This too, will seem to many as extremely inequitable. To order implementation of a plan with this defect, however well intended, places me far too near what Anatole France had in mind in the 19th century when he wrote:

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

The plaintiffs’ plan divides the district into four quadrants and clusters the schools in each. There is at least one predominately black school in each quadrant. The black school becomes a center where all the children from that quadrant attend for either one or two years, either at the beginning or end of grades 1-6.

During the other school years the students attend their neighborhood schools and the black students are divided among the formerly predominately white schools.

This plan has these advantages: (1) The six schools which are now integrated (or which can be with minor boundary modifications) are not included in the plan. Thus, where integration is already in effect, it is recognized that no necessity exists to change school patterns. (2) The majority-minority ratio in each school approximates the district-wide population ratio. (3) Two presently predominately black schools are left open whereas defendants’ plan closes them. If these schools are closed at this time, the black community is sure to view this as insulting to them. That in turn would adversely affect not only the sensibilities of the minority population, but the workability of the plan as well. If there are valid administrative reasons to close these schools, this can be done in a reasonable time after the schools no longer are considered “black” schools. (4) There is equal participation of all the schools throughout the district. (5) This plan, as distinguished from the defendants’ plan, leaves the kindergarten children in their own schools just as they are now.

For these reasons, it seems to me that I have no alternative but to adopt plaintiffs’ K-6 plan for implementation.

Another aspect of the order would remain contentious for decades: A requirement that the district “insure minority faculty and staff in at least the same ratio as the minority bears to the population.”

“This must be accomplished as soon as practicable,” Ackerman wrote. However, The State Journal-Register reported in November 2013 that only 11 percent of district teachers were minority; by contrast, state figures for the 2012-13 school year showed that the student population was 51 percent minority (38 percent black, 9 percent multiracial, and 4 percent Hispanic, Asian, and others).

Public school enrollment in 1976 was 19,000, 17 percent of whom were minority, according to Ackerman’s summary. Total enrollment in 2012-13 was 14,367.schs logo (2)

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 

This entry was posted in African Americans, Education, Local government, Schools and school districts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Springfield School District desegregation order (1976)

  1. Nick Penning says:

    How much did private school enrollment increase after the consent decree was ordered and the agreement put into effect? If the Black student enrollment was just 17 percent in 1976, and it ballooned to 38 percent in 2012, where did all those white students go?

  2. Elizabeth Rutherford says:

    Most likely to places like Chatham, Auburn, Pleasant Plains or into parochial schools.

  3. Nick Penning says:

    The Catholic bishop at the time “cautioned Catholic schools against accepting transfers – Catholic or otherwise – from public schools,” in reaction to the desegregation consent decree and school restructuring. But I suspect those transfers occurred, nonetheless. Source:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *