Tonight, nationally renowned journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones joins MLK50: Justice Through Journalism Founder Wendi C. Thomas in conversation on education equity amid modern-day school segregation.

Set to take place at The Orpheum’s Halloran center, the talk will be moderated by Memphis-based activist and Tami Sawyer, Teach for America’s diversity and cultural competence director.

If the temptation is to think school segregation was effectively eliminated following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education, Hannah-Jones’ reporting dismantles the assumption by spotlighting the popular practice of school district secession by smaller townships and suburbs, not unlike the demerger of the unified Shelby County School System in 2014.

The unacknowledged reason for secession suggests leaving a multiracial school district to form a more homogenous one dominated by one race would negate the need for integration. Or, as Hannah-Jones wrote about Alabama in the New York Times: “Their strategy was simple: There could be no forced integration if there were no black children in the school system to integrate with.”

Hannah-Jones’ reporting is “especially relevant to Memphis,” according to Caroline Bauman, community editor for Chalkbeat Tennessee:

“This conversation isn’t happening in Memphis at a local level,” Bauman said. “I’m hopeful that Nikole’s visit will ignite in Memphis a deeper understanding of what school segregation is, where it is and why it matters.”

Wendi C. Thomas, right, speaks with Angela Rye, attorney and activist, at the #IAmMemphis commemoration in February. Photo by Andrea Morales.

In June 2017, Shelby County was featured in a report by nonprofit research group EdBuild as a glaring example of education inequality fostered, in part, by the splintering of a large school district into smaller ones as white families leave urban schools.

Among other findings, EdBuild’s report noted Tennessee’s state law allowing for secession is the most lenient among 30 states that have such laws. State law allows for any municipality of 1,500 people or more to create their own school district.

Evidence that supports integration as beneficial is plentiful, but in spite of that, secession laws producing the opposite are being passed year after year in dozens of states besides Tennessee.

Kimber Taylor, dean of culture at KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools charter system, said it’s past time for Memphis education stakeholders talk about school segregation but also keep the issue as a continuous area of focus.

“What is happening in the wider context is that people are just running away,” Taylor said. “And as a result, we have these large pockets of schools that are being underserved. We need to have more conversations to push the language of segregation and integration as a current practices. It’s critical.”

“I’m hopeful that Nikole’s visit will ignite in Memphis a deeper understanding of what school segregation is, where it is and why it matters.” 

 Caroline Bauman, Chalkbeat Tennessee

One startling fact undergirds tonight’s onstage conversation: Poverty falls unevenly in Memphis where 52 percent of black children but only 16 percent of white children live in households below the poverty line, according to Thomas.

And conventional wisdom holds that education is a primary determinant of social mobility, even in the face of uneven outcomes for African-Americans, such as a persistent wage gap between black and white college graduates. What is not commonly accepted in Memphis is the notion of socially acceptable segregation that may very well be undergirded by underfunding K-12 education, as some critics argue.

“Integration as something that works is an important statement,” KIPP’s Taylor said. “Because, if we don’t want to try it, then we need to face what that means about us as a people.”

Hannah-Jones, Thomas and Sawyer will appear at 7 tonight at The Orpheum’s Halloran Center in Downtown Memphis.

Micaela Watts is a journalism consultant for the Center for Southern Literary Arts.

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a yearlong nonprofit reporting project leading up to the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s. death. Our focus on covering economic justice issues in Memphis has been generously supported by the Surdna Foundation and the Center for Community Change. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.