Is History Repeating?
A union activist in the thick of racial integration battles 40 years ago says we need to do better this time.
I started teaching in 1958, at an all-White high school in rural Rockmart, Georgia, a village with a cotton mill and a cement factory. I taught math and physics and coached drama and football while living on the grounds in one of the school’s four houses for employees.
Racial integration came to Rockmart in 1967 and it was going to start with the faculty. The smaller Black high school had a good math teacher, and the school board was going to swap us. Then the Klan burned a cross between my house and the school. The school board decided to close the Black school and bring its students over to the White school.
That year I had more Black students than Whites in my advanced math and physics. We had a fun time. I remember one Black kid who talked a lot, with a strong accent—other students translated for me.
I was also president of the statewide Classroom Teachers Association. The next year I worked on the first field staff hired for the integrated Georgia Association of Educators. Our job was to make the merger of the two teachers organizations work, and to make school integration work.
I was sent to southern Georgia, where a lot of my work involved defending Whites who were too liberal (meaning they treated Black and White students the same) and Black educators who were in danger of losing their jobs when segregated schools were closed.
We did everything we could, including organizing, political action, and legal pressure. A few times, the state organization won some court victories on the basis of racial discrimination. NEA provided a lot of the funds for those early cases.
I remember one rally with 200 Black people supporting a Black principal whose job was going to be eliminated. When I left, a deputy sheriff followed me and said over his radio they were going to lock me up if I made a wrong move. Some of the teachers at the rally had police scanners, and that made me a hero.
Overall, integration in this area was accomplished with a minimum of violence, possibly because the segregated private academies were a sort of safety valve. It was a great time to be an educator and an organizer on the front line of change. I thought in one generation we would have integration, but it didn’t happen. And we’ve regressed some.
Now our Hispanic population faces similar issues. Some of the good old boys are feeling threatened, the same as they felt before about Black people. They want to be better than somebody, and they’re afraid Hispanics will take their jobs.
When racial integration happened, there was no effort to get us ready for it—all of a sudden it was on us. Let’s learn from the past. We need in-service directed to understanding Hispanic language and culture, and teachers need to be paid to take part in it. We’ve got to do better with these new students than we did with integration 40 years ago.
A Straight-Talk Solution?
So how are teachers addressing the racial divide that G.W. Tibbetts spent a career trying to eradicate?
A recent NEA Today article explored the topic of culturally responsive teaching. What is that, you ask? From the article: “Culturally responsive teaching is not about one lesson on Martin Luther King Jr. during Black History Month. It is not serving tacos in the cafeteria on Cinco de Mayo.
Beyond heroes and holidays, it is about understanding students’ home life, their language, music, dress, behavior, jokes, ideas about success, the role of religion and community in their lives, and more. It is bringing the experiences of their 24-hour day into the seven-hour school day to give them information in a familiar context.”
Talking with students about how race and economic standing affect them is not easy. But some teachers are doing just that, opening up discussions of today’s most pressing social issues in the process.