Jack Ruffin was an amazing hero.
The pioneer black attorney, civil rights champion and eventual Georgia state appeals court chief first secured his place in local history books as the man who guided the case against the Richmond County education system that forever changed the way the schools in Augusta were run, and many sadly say, it was the ruination of the public schools here as we once knew them.
Judge Ruffin would want an honest accounting of all the good that he did in his vast career as an attorney and jurist, but it is only fair and appropriate to consider also laying to rest the unintentional disaster that came on the heels of his greatest victory, the federal desegregation case that he won against the Richmond County school board.
While the fight was righteous, and the goals admirable and lofty, the resulting final solution remains hanging around the neck of local taxpayers like a rotting, stinking albatross. Much like the national debt will choke generations of taxpayers who were not born when the politicians of yesteryear decided to become a debtor nation, the property owners of Richmond County are paying the tab for sins they didn’t commit for medicine to cure a disease that has long since been eradicated.
The short story that tells the tale is simply this:
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ruffin was able to convince the federal courts that long after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools should be completely desegregated, officials with the Richmond County school board kept their system separate and unequal through a rigid and premeditated school zoning plan that drew sharp lines between black and white neighborhoods.
Some say it was subtle, but the result was obvious. In Augusta-Richmond County, there was almost no race mixing in the public schools.
In 2012 no one (except the most ignorant Neanderthals) sees racial segregation as anything other than an anachronistic throwback of an unenlightened age.
But in 1972 the local folks fighting Jack Ruffin and his case against their school system were far more concerned about the possible remedies than any misbegotten allegiance to racial purity.
I can say that with 100 percent confidence, because my family, specifically my mother, father and a number of aunts and uncles were on the front lines fighting for the other side. I saw and heard their concerns in my own living room, and over hundreds of evening meals, for weeks and months and years on end.
Some 42 years later, after many, many hours of research, discussion and study on the issue, I can tell you without hesitation: both sides were right.
Ruffin and his plaintiffs were right to question the system plans and agendas that kept the schools almost solidly segregated long after the Supreme Court ruled such policy verboten.
My family and their allies were right when they feared the final solution, in which they rightly feared a hideous busing plan that did nothing to alleviate poor conditions in minority dominated schools, but rather, tried to “equalize” the system by subjecting suburban kids to the conditions of the inner city.
Ruffin and his team won the local battle to be sure. Decades later we see that they sadly lost the war that was the more important struggle for quality education for all.
To say the court constructed final solution didn’t work would be the understatement of the century.
Virtually overnight Augusta’s few private schools were filled to capacity by the children of those with the means to pay their way out of the court-ordered busing nightmare, and new private schools popped up like dandelions. The resulting exodus of talent, intellect, community service and financial support was a blow to the system that was almost fatal.
Many years later, thanks to the advent of the magnet schools, a return to sensible neighborhood zoning plans for most schools, and the post Charles Larke leadership maturity that was once lacking, the Richmond County school system is inching closer to performing at levels that most would call acceptable and respectable.
Current board members Jimmy Atkins, Frank Dolan and Alex Howard have expressed a strong desire to get out from under the federal court order that resulted from Ruffin’s case, and the millions in legal fees that continue to add up every year as compliance is monitored by any number of rotating local attorneys.
In 2012 the system shows no signs of operating in anything other than a completely “enlightened” environment, and, ironically, several mandated directives in the order have had to be adjusted because the system has performed so well. For instance, the order provided that the racial makeup of school employees reflect the make up of the county population.
If they followed the letter of the law, the system would have to replace a good number of black employees with white ones, because, by the letter of the law, whites are now underrepresented in the ranks. How is that for irony?
Judge Jack Ruffin was rightly given a hero’s burial at the time of his passing. It is now time to bury the unrighteous court order that was the unintended result of his greatest victory.You Might Also Like: