Learning From Wrecks

May 10th, 2012

When the federal bench has to step in and make local decisions, you can bet your Constitution that somebody is either not going anywhere fast enough or has gone way too far already.

Welcome to Memphis, Shelby County and Tennessee.

As published in The Daily News, May 11, 2012, and in The Memphis News, May 12-18, 2012

Gavel And Book


The weight of his robes bearing down, the certain confusion and probable chaos resulting from his next words, the U.S. District Judge in Memphis adjusted his glasses, took a deep breath, and changed public education in his hometown forever.

Forty years ago. And right now.

In 1972, the judge was Robert McRae. If you don’t remember that year or recognize that name, you missed the giant yellow bus that ran head first into societal barriers, carrying the ugly truth in black and white, driving tens of thousands of whites to the suburbs, and delivering the initial private school explosion that resonates and grows to this day. Two years before, the city and county refused to acknowledge the problem of segregation and separation and the reality of shared destiny, and voted down consolidation. Since we offered local denial instead of solution, the federal government and the Supreme Court gave Judge McRae little choice but to use busing to desegregate Memphis City Schools. The result was a huge wreck.

Déjà vu – a French expression that means grab onto something, because we’re about to have another huge wreck.

This one’s different. This time we’re trying to drive the solution ourselves, trying to openly address the problem of public education in all of Shelby County with unified, informed and inspired solutions to advance all of our children – all of our children – toward a better chance for all of us – all of us – tomorrow.

But this time the wreck is headed our way from Nashville, not from Washington. Our very own suburban Shelby legislators set the course to benefit the few over the many, even grabbing the wheel and changing course again when we seemed to be making progress. This time, instead of inviting the federal government in by standing still on segregation like we did in 1972, the state has singled out Shelby County and is driving full-speed ahead to officially segregate city and county by setting de facto economic, social and racial boundaries.

Mark Norris, driver of this express, was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as saying he was helping the suburbs, “not just to form their own school system but to form a system that can help unify the county, by being part of the unified system…….”

Say what, Mark?

Unifying us by forming seven or eight school districts instead of one? Creating seven or eight school boards instead of one, creating seven or eight new tax rates, seven or eight new budget crises, seven or eight new fist fights for state budget support and seven or eight new state and federal lawsuits?


This time, under the weight of those robes, I predict another U.S. District Judge in Memphis will be called upon to adjust his glasses, take a deep breath, and change public education in his hometown forever.

This judge is Hardy Mays and, this time, he can stop the wreck.

I’m a Memphian, and we should tell Nashville that this is our county and the majority of us can drive.


Denny Woody: If you talk to the people behind this mess of forming separate districts, they will deny that race is a factor. HUH?!!! I, like you, can see where this is headed and it's not advancing further into the 21st century, but back to the '60's and '70's. I don't, however, see this as racially charged as the busing fights of 40+ years ago. I see it more as a "haves vs. have nots". I have found myself in opposition to whites who live outside Memphis, not over the race issue, but over the socio-economic issue. Also compounding the brouhaha is the fact that most, if not all, of the educators are terrified over the prospect of Kriner Cash being in charge of the whole shooting match. I'm hoping and praying that with the new elected Board of Education that cooler heads will prevail.

Carole Taylor: Hi, again. I enjoyed your column today. I knew Hardy when I was in Memphis, when he was just a lowly lawyer and I was a lowly not-a-lawyer and we were both on the ballet boards (two of them) together. If you know him and see him, tell him I said hi. Or maybe we were on the ACLU board together. I forget. I have senior moments all day every day. Hardy and I are cousins, even, second or third or several times removed, through the late Judge Billy Fones. But I remember him as a fair and intelligent man. I hope he makes the right (meaning left) decision.

Carole Taylor: By the way--great web design. Did you do this yourself or did you find some other talented soul to put this together? Really good art and graphics and all the buttons work the way they're supposed to. Good job. The writing ain't bad either. :)

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