In eight Southern states, 22 schools are named after politicians who signed the 1956 “Southern Manifesto,” which strongly opposed the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that deemed racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Education Week reports. And though demographics vary, the article says, black students made up 50% of one school's total enrollment.
The article notes that some of these politicians later changed their attitudes or priorities — Arkansas Sen. J.W. Fulbright is known for the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, and Sen. Richard B. Russell of Georgia wrote the original National School Lunch Act, which provides daily free or reduced-cost meals to millions of students each year. However, experts say it's important to make distinctions between figures and their individual legacies in evaluating their commemoration.
- School communities are dealing with this reality in various ways; some areas while some may consider renaming, state law prohibits others from doing so, Ed Week notes. But at the end of the day, students need to feel welcome and safe in the schools they attend, Jeremy Nesoff, an associate director at nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, told the publication.
As debate over schools named after Confederate leaders has continued to brew, the discussion on schools named after post-Civil War politicians who supported segregation has been largely overlooked, Ed Week notes. While Confederate history is filled with bloody battles and fights for secession, segregation has arguably had a more direct and lasting impact on today's citizens — in the world of education and in other areas — and provides lessons for us all about tolerance, diversity and school climate.
Schools named after segregationists or Confederate leaders may see issues arise among students and staff members — especially those of color — who don’t feel comfortable attending or working at an institution named after someone who took such a stance. And even if an area doesn't have a school with a segregationist's namesake, many communities have pro-Confederate monuments or statues that memorialize figures with pro-segregation or pro-slavery stances.
While some school community members may demand a school change its name, it's likely not everyone will agree, and it's a decision that's often very expensive and may affect its legacy in other ways. For some schools, it could be enough to simply acknowledge the history behind their respective names, using the discussions as teachable moments about the civil rights movement and the gains that were made despite opposition from strong forces. But for others, this isn't enough, and as Nesoff said, schools and school leaders need to be ready to listen and continue the dialogue if some want more to be done.
Developing a positive school culture helps students feel welcome and safe and creates an atmosphere conducive to learning and personal growth. And for some, a school's name could be more than just that. If a student or staff member doesn't feel comfortable learning or teaching in a building named after a segregationist, these feelings could serve to have negative impacts on the school's overall climate.