- We Can Do It: A Community Takes on the Challenge of School Desegregation by Michael T. Gengler
We Can Do It: A Community Takes on the Challenge of School Desegregation focuses on the desegregation of the public school system in Alachua County, Florida, and examines how local black and white community members reacted to and approached the county's transition from a dual to a unitary public school system in the 1950s and 1960s. Bridging the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) decisions, Michael T. Gengler, a former corporate lawyer and longtime public education advocate in the Gainesville, Florida, area, brings together the complex history of public school desegregation in Alachua County. In this study, Gengler traces the history and culture of Jim Crow from its manifestation in the everyday lives of county residents to the groundwork laid by black and white communities, teachers, and administrators in implementing desegregation efforts.
Most scholarship on school desegregation concentrates temporally on the events leading to and the immediate aftermath of Brown and geographically on more high-profile examples of massive resistance in Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Gengler's narrative suggests that the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case did not effect immediate, substantial change in respect to race relations. Instead, it was not until 1968 that the Green decision marked an end to separate black and white public school systems.
The closing of black schools in Alachua County, such as Lincoln High School, left many black students attending the white Gainesville High School, where racist traditions such as waving the Confederate flag and playing "Dixie" were upheld. As Gengler documents, black students at Gainesville High challenged these callbacks to a white supremacist past through organizing and collective action.
One of this study's greatest strengths lies in the copious and rich interviews Gengler incorporates throughout, which allow local voices involved in the desegregation movement to relay firsthand the complexity of the movement's successes, failures, and legacies. However, this study is ripe for further analysis on the critical role of black women, power politics, and gender dynamics in local school desegregation movements and their legacies. For instance, chapters on African American educators and the movement and the continued segregation of southern school systems beg for more in-depth discussion on the legacies of the 1965 Moynihan Report and the social barriers and racism in contemporary Alachua County.
While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled race-based admissions unconstitutional, the black community remained divided "between those who wanted the black schools to be continued and made equal to the white schools and those who accepted the consequences of the unitary system" (p. x). In Alachua County, like in much of the South, historically black public schools served as sites for community activism and race pride. Even after the closing of Lincoln High in 1970, "graduating Lincoln transfer students … proudly displayed" Lincoln High School colors—red and white—"on their caps and received [End Page 743] Lincoln High School diplomas," despite spending their senior year at Gainesville High (p. xiv). However, for county leaders, a desegregated public school system meant the closing of the black schools. Gengler astutely concludes that for lawyers, judges, administrators, and political leaders seeking federal compliance with Brown, "[t]he white school was the model for desegregated public education" (p. xiv). We Can Do It invites scholars of civil rights history to critically assess the long-standing impacts of desegregation efforts and massive resistance within black and white communities throughout the United States.