DISD teacher helping students with their assignment in 1977. From the collections of the Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library.
“The segregation prohibited by the United States Constitution, the United States Supreme Court and federal statutes no longer exists in the DISD,” declared Judge Sanders in June 2003. This short, but powerful, statement provides little indication of the long road that led up to it. The litigation paperwork alone involved in the Tasby case could literally fill an entire room; supporting documentation, multiple advisory reports, and evidence presented to the court increase the archives significantly.
The history of the integration of Dallas’ schools did not start off well for those eager to see Brown brought to fruition. In general, the majority population of Dallas was against early plans for desegregation—in a city-wide election, Dallasites voted four to one against school integration. As well, DISD and powerful business interests sought to stifle the various lawsuits that ensued.
In 1955, United States District Court Judge William H. Atwell ruled against a plaintiff seeking to desegregate Dallas’ schools, holding that the United States Supreme Court had overstepped its authority in Brown. He did the same in 1957, when he decided against a case brought by the NAACP on behalf of two black Dallas children who wanted to attend a white school that was closer to their home than their black school. Judge Atwell was overruled by the Fifth Circuit in both cases. He later ordered that all Dallas schools be desegregated, but his plan was subsequently overruled by the Fifth Circuit on the grounds that it was unreasonable.
Until 1961, Dallas was the largest city in the South with a segregated school system. In 1960, the Chief Justice of the Fifth Circuit had criticized DISD’s delays by stating, “Words without deeds are not enough.” Consequently, in 1961, the Dallas School Board implemented a desegregation plan (the “Stairstep Plan”) under order of the Fifth Circuit. On September 6, 1961, eighteen black children started first grade classes in what had been up until then segregated schools for whites only. The NAACP, however, stated its dissatisfaction with DISD officials for making it unnecessarily difficult for the black children to enter the white schools. Nevertheless, in September of 1967, DISD declared Dallas schools desegregated.
The Tasby Litigation Begins
As the next thirty years of litigation would prove, such optimism was unwarranted; the Dallas schools were far from desegregated. The Tasby litigation began on October 6, 1970, when Sam Tasby filed a lawsuit in federal court charging DISD with continuing use of a dual school system prohibited under Brown. The greater Dallas community did not welcome this lawsuit, as many felt strongly that DISD has done its part to implement Brown, even though Dallas school zones were de facto segregated. The Tasby trial took place from July 12 to July 16, 1971 under United States District Judge William M. Taylor. At its completion, Judge Taylor declared “a dual system still exists,” and ordered DISD leaders to come up with a new plan to desegregate the Dallas school system. This plan was called the “Confluence of Cultures Desegregation Plan,” and was published on July 23, 1971.
In July of 1975, the Fifth Circuit rejected important parts of this plan, ordering the implementation of a new one by January 1976. This only added to the complex nature of the Tasby litigation, as other parties were added to the lawsuit, including the NAACP.
On February 2, 1976, Judge Taylor presided over a second desegregation trial, and by April, a new desegregation plan was issued. The Fifth Circuit rejected most of this plan as well. The most divisive part of the plan centered around the busing of students, and Judge Taylor held additional hearings on a new desegregation plan. He removed himself from the ongoing litigation on March 21, 1981 in order to avoid any further possibility that a desegregation plan might be overturned.
Judge Barefoot Sanders Enters the Case
Judge Sanders inherited the Tasby case at a time when the court was already overseeing the busing of school children in grades four to eight. During the 1970’s, court-ordered busing was a fractious issue in Dallas, as in other parts of the United States, and more often than not, black students felt unwelcome when they arrived to their new schools. All the while, the phenomena of white flight found its way to Dallas.
After a series of hearings, Judge Sanders found that DISD continued to show signs of segregation, but he concluded that additional busing would not solve the problem. He ordered the parties to present new desegregation plans to him. He thereafter issued the decade’s third desegregation plan, ordering:
This Judgment constitutes the Desegregation Plan for the Dallas Independent School District (“DISD” or “the District”) and is rendered pursuant to, and is to be construed in the light of and consistent with, (1) the Court’s Memorandum Opinion dated August 3, 1981; (2) the Stipulation dated December 1, 1981, and approved by the Court on December 2, 1981; and (3) the Court’s Memorandum Opinions and Orders dated December 7, 1981; December 21, 1981; January 4, 1982; and February 1, 1982. This Judgment supersedes the final judgment rendered by this Court in 1976. All programs provided for in this Judgment must be initiated by the beginning of the DISD 1982-83 school year, or sooner if feasible, unless otherwise herein provided.
During August of 1983, the DISD school board finally ended its fight against court-ordered desegregation by unanimously accepting the Fifth Circuit’s upholding of Judge Sander’s desegregation plan. And from that time on, DISD would remain under Sander’s oversight until he declared it desegregated.
Over the next few years, Judge Sanders ruled that large distances involved in busing grades nine through twelve and K through three precluded busing. He went on to discontinue busing effectively in 1985 and 1986 via the creation of local learning centers. He also oversaw bond initiatives and the building of new magnet schools that he hoped would be a viable alternative to busing.
The long history of judicial oversight of DISD initiated by the Tasby case finally ended in 2003. In his ruling that year that severed DISD from court oversight, Judge Sanders expressed his hope that DISD school board members would implement the spirit and substance of Brown without continued need for court supervision.