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Professor Tracy K’Meyer’s latest book, From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky, 1954–2007, represents an important contribution to the study of school desegregation. Although the story focuses on Louisville during the latter half of the twentieth century, it also offers ideas about the struggle for racial integration and educational equality which extend beyond Louisville and which will undoubtedly be examined and applied more broadly in the future.
The principal goal of From Brown to Meredith is to tell the story of school desegregation in Louisville through the eyes of local residents who took part in the struggle. Although the book draws from a variety of primary and secondary sources, it focuses on oral history interviews conducted with over fifty Louisvillians of varied backgrounds and perspectives. In fact, K’Meyer allows participants in the struggle to speak for themselves in a way that differs from traditional civil rights narratives; connected via contextual descriptions and scholarly analysis, edited interview transcripts make up much of the text. Although the fifty-odd narrators represent a varied group of individuals—diverse in “race, gender, and position relative to events”—scholars will note that the group is comprised primarily of students, teachers, school officials, parents who volunteered, and community activists (p. 6).
While the chronology of school desegregation presented is fairly conventional, From Brown to Meredith expands our understanding of the “long” civil rights movement by examining how school integration has fared in recent decades. It also includes a discussion of what desegregation meant for those involved, as well as how scholars have [End Page 653] assessed its worth or importance. Although varied opinions about integration and diversity inform present-day policy decisions, K’Meyer points out that scholarship suggests “desegregated school environments improve quantifiable measures of achievement for minority and poor students and benefit long-term life and career experiences for both blacks and whites” (p. 174).
K’Meyer’s account also promotes “a new historical narrative,” or a “counternarrative,” to traditional accounts of school desegregation (pp. 104, 181). Whereas scholars often emphasize white opposition to racial change, and the effects of this, From Brown to Meredith highlights the role of both black and white advocates of racial equality (especially with regard to busing). Although critics will point out that the overwhelmingly negative white reaction to busing overshadowed the efforts of pro-busing advocates from the start, it is important to recognize the role of these oft-forgotten activists. K’Meyer writes, “The oral histories collected here comprise an alternative narrative of school desegregation that restores to public memory and to the public dialogue the stories of local people dedicated to building equal education and better human relations” (p. 184).
K’Meyer also hopes that this counternarrative will provide hope and motivation to individuals and organizations working for racial equality in public education in the present day. Rather than focus on a negative portrayal of the past, she writes, “we should seek to discover what went wrong with the implementation of school desegregation and heed the voices of those who lived through it to make it right” (p. 183). In an environment plagued by resegregation in public education, such a perspective offers food for thought for scholars, as well as support and energy for those committed to integration and racial equality more broadly. [End Page 654]
BRIAN DAUGHERITY teaches history at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the co-editor of With All Deliberate Speed: Implementing Brown v. Board of Education (2008) and is currently writing a book about school desegregation in Virginia.