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Gregory Coffin and Neil Sullivan discuss civil rights and school integration; part 2

BROADCAST: 1967 | DURATION: 00:29:13


Interviewing school superintendents Gregory Coffin (Evanston) and Neil Sullivan (Berkeley) who discuss school integration and civil rights.


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Dr. Gregory Coffin Pettigrew mentioned the fact that that youngsters' attitudes are formed, basic attitudes are formed, between the ages of three and 11 and the-- so that it's at this stage in the in the child's life in school that we have to provide him with experiences which will enable him to come out with healthy attitudes. In Evanston, if I made any kind of a unique contribution, if I've made such a contribution so far, it was by introducing the notion that not only did we have the problem of de facto segregation in the Foster and Dewey schools, but we had the problem of de facto segregation in at least ten other elementary schools. These were segregated white schools. And these youngsters were missing out on a phase of their education which they shouldn't miss out on and which could be relatively easily corrected, so that in our integration program, all of our schools will be integrated. We're not trying to just eliminate de facto segregation in the all Negro Foster school or the 65 percent Negro Dewey school. We want to integrate all the schools. And this we'll do in September where the range will be from 17 percent to 25 percent Negro and there'll be Negroes-- this range of Negro student population in every school. And many of these schools of course have never had a Negro student in them.

Studs Terkel What were the reactions-- you were able to tell so far, reactions of some of the white schools where the Negro student entered on the part of the students?

Dr. Gregory Coffin We had had, we've had for three years, Evanston has had for three years now, a voluntary enrollment program which has integrated several of the schools that wouldn't otherwise be integrated. Actually, not all of the schools will be integrated until September of '67, September this coming year. The reaction I think overall has been very favorable. We've had our opposition and we know th-there is still opposition. However I sense that there is a growing body of support for the total program and I sense that part of this comes out of community pride, that is this idea of solving one's problem. We've had a very favorable publicity about the program. We appreciate the efforts of Chicago news media, newspapers, and other news media. And I think that as people become more aware of what we're doing and just why we're doing it, there is a sense of community pride which is bringing more and more people on the side of strong support for the program.

Studs Terkel So we swing from Evanson back to Neil Sullivan [chuckles] and leaving Virginia. A new challenge developed. Now so the the the free schools, the free schools are there to stay aren't they? The free-

Dr. Neil Sullivan No, not actually. The Supreme Court decision of 1964 was a very interesting decision in which it decided that no community, as long as a neighboring community in the state supported public education, could could ever close its public schools. This was a very crucial Supreme Court decision. So Prince Edward County was forced to reopen its public schools. But these public schools now are Negro schools. So the free schools was a one year John F. Kennedy project. This was as long as we had anticipated being there. The court made its decision. We left. But today in in Prince Edward County, th-there are public schools for Negroes, private schools for Caucasians.

Studs Terkel Mm. So it it's a there's a reversion here. This is interesting. Before I ask you about California, Dr. Coffin, Dr. Coffin, Darien county, since Dr. Coffin left at the time, there's a reversion taking place there, too. Old hardened attitudes. I think we have to face this reality, and you sense it in Prince Edward County. That-

Dr. Gregory Coffin I was going to raise that that question. I should correct thing- your Darien county, I know you're talking about prison-- Prince Edward County, Darien is a suburb, it's a town, not a county. This question has been raised with me a number of times and I've given one answer but I'm not at all sure the answer is correct, and that is if you start a program and do something for a limited period of time, in this case in Prince Edward County, for a year in Darien, this-- these exchange programs, for a couple of years and then the the basic power structure takes over and they revert to type, so to speak. Have you really made a contribution? I I don't know. I I'd be curious to know what Neil thinks about this.

Dr. Neil Sullivan Yeah well, I I certainly agree with you that a one-year project would leave little to be desired when you when you evaluat it ten years later. However the Prince Edward project was unique because it broke the pattern, it broke the back of the South, actually. This was the challenge. Could a community, could a state close its public schools? As far as the kids were concerned, they had one great year. I do think retrogression started the day after we left. I'd agree with Dr. Coffin, here, that it must be longer than a year.

Studs Terkel And does this raise another question, too, not only have time but something else must change along with it? Here are two committed educators two Superintendents of Schools, Neil Sullivan and Gregory Coffin. And you have staffs that are equally committed to an idea that is very human and perhaps just civilized in the only feasible way we can live in the mid-20th century. Yet doesn't it raise another question? Something else must change, too.

Dr. Neil Sullivan Yes. And I think that this did occur in Prince Edward County. I'll give you a couple of examples. You know I, as you read in "Bound for Freedom," I couldn't get a house in the community. I not only had the problem of of working with Negroes but I I happened to be a Catholic, and when you put these two things together it was an impossible situation. My only Caucasian friend, incidentally, initiatory who who helped me out here was a Jew. And he was a merchant and he was to suffer all the great indignities that could be heaped on one man's head for his friendship with with me. So attitudes have to change and and while I I paint rather a dismal picture of the power structure of Prince Edward County, and I think I do it correctly, they're they're they're controlled by a newspaper, by an editor, Barry Wall, who was hard and firm, refuses to give an inch. But what happened in Prince Edward County, we had integrated living. We had Negroes living with whites and this has changed the attitude, I think, of many of the Caucasians in that community. Prince Edward County will never be quite the same. The establishment must die. And after that-

Studs Terkel You said the establishment must die, literally a member did. And as a will, this is fascinating.

Dr. Neil Sullivan Oh,

Studs Terkel Now, you said the establishment must die.

Dr. Neil Sullivan Right.

Studs Terkel Now that-- your antagonists, that antagonist of the pro-integration and the Supreme Court, the lawyer. Was it? Not-- am I right?

Dr. Neil Sullivan This th-this this is right.

Studs Terkel A remarkable case.

Dr. Neil Sullivan It certainly is in that the the attorney for the defense in Brown vs. the Board of Education was a Richmond lawyer, a very eminent, distinguished attorney who went to the Supreme Court on the Brown vs. Board of Education case several times. Now they were going back the fourth time when this case-- the question was whether or not Virginia had to have public schools. And the one request he made of his of his doctor, he was he was dying from terminal cancer was, "Get me through to that to that particular day." Well he didn't quite make it. On his death bed he changed his will and the will indicated that he wanted X number of dollars left for the Negroes children and the free schools of Prince Edward County. You can read into this, anything you desire. Incidentally, when this was given out to the Richmond papers, they printed a denial. Th-They said, "This is incredible. It's impossible. The man couldn't do it." They called me up, and I said, "Well, call the man's widow, and call call the the attorney who made out the will." And sure enough, there was no mistake. He had, in his dying moments, different thoughts about what

Studs Terkel Sounds like an incredible parallel, doesn't it, as a drama? Here, Dr. Coffin, you were about to say something were-weren't you?

Dr. Gregory Coffin No, I-I've forgotten what it was. I was intrigued by the story. I don't have as-- anything as as romantic to talk about-

Studs Terkel I think you will, during your during your years at Evanston. [laughs] They'll be coming up [laughs] in Evanston itself. But the story of this man who was the antagonist, individually, this lawyer, Richmond, the South changing his will as though something had happened to this man, a certain-

Dr. Neil Sullivan True.

Studs Terkel Vision, a light. You know?

Dr. Neil Sullivan True.

Studs Terkel So what happened? You left. So you now, a new challenge for for Neal Sullivan. The Adventures of Pauline, "The Perils of [Dr. Neil Sullivan laughs] Pauline." Berkeley California. How'd this come, to be?

Dr. Neil Sullivan Well, Berkeley as as I think in many ways was similar to Evanston as, Dr. Coffin has related it to you today. Berkeley wanted to do something. Berkeley had a heart. Berkely had a desire to integrate its schools. Berkeley wanted to do the right thing, morally and legally. And they wanted to bring in an educator who was committed to integration. No fooling around about this thing. They they they searched the country and interviewed many men, incidentally there are a lot of guys who have the same commitment that Dr. Coffin and I have. We're not too unique. If a community will search hard enough, they'll find the Coffins. They are not in in great abundance, but

Studs Terkel Can I ask you this question, this is a small question, we have a lot to pass. Did-- it's a very small question, Dr. Sullivan. Were you invited as a candidate here by the Chicago Board of Education?

Dr. Neil Sullivan No I was not.

Studs Terkel Okay. Let's continue shall we? Wit-with-with the subject of Berkeley.

Dr. Neil Sullivan Yes. Berkeley was looking for a school superintendent who had knowledge of and interest in the education of the total school population. I'd like to to point out that Berkeley has a Negro population of 43 percent. This is a a substantial Negro community. It also has, in its student body, the the sons and daughters of the great Nobel Prize winners who who teach at at this fabulous University of of California at Berkeley. One-tenth of our kids in the Berkeley school system or ten percent of our kids fall within the one-tenth percent of the elite intellectual family in the country. So we have this desire in Berkeley to have quality education but integrated education.

Studs Terkel Suppose you make this clear, too, about Berkeley? We, in the minds of most Americans outside California, outside Berkeley, we think of it as the home of the University of California, primarily, and militant students. But Berkeley is an industrial city.

Dr. Neil Sullivan It certainly is. It's just part of Megapolis, that's all. You can't tell Berkeley from Oakland other than there th-there is a a philosophical wall between Berkeley and Oakland that I would be happy to to describe

Studs Terkel Please do.

Dr. Neil Sullivan But it-- Berkeley is just part of a tremendous, burgeoning Bay Area community, now over three million people. [clank in background] We're a small part of it. The the community is is with its student body 150,000 bodies.

Dr. Gregory Coffin There's another interesting parallel there. Neil mentioned a philosophical wall, there's a philosophical wall between Evanston and the rest of the North Shore, too.

Studs Terkel Well how-- would you mind just touching on that and just-

Dr. Gregory Coffin Well they they the fact that Evanston as a North Shore suburb is is unique in that it it has heterogeneity in its population. It has a Negro population, as I've indicated in the schools of 21 percent. And as you go north, the minute you go north into Wilmette and then up the line to Kenilworth and Winnetka and Highland Park, you find pure white suburbs, so that there must be a philosophical wall to create that kind of a demography along the North Shore, since the North Shore communities, as you know, are are really pack quite close together. As you drive up Sheridan road you don't know when you leave one, go in the other.

Studs Terkel So this this is this observation made by Gregory Coffin, Neil Sullivan, this observation this philosophical wall, I imagine this is in every part of the country, isn't it?

Dr. Neil Sullivan It absolutely is.

Studs Terkel It's seemingly similar and yet basic differences.

Dr. Neil Sullivan There is no question, Dr. Coffin is correct. His his Darien, my East Williston, Boston's Newton. You go across the country and you'll find the same barriers that he has just described.

Studs Terkel But these walls, too, seemingly seemingly of the same pattern, economic and eth-- or cultural if not ethnic, but there's a wall, as between you say, Berkeley and Oakland-- again in the mind of a Midwestern, Berkeley and Oakland are almost the same, you know.

Dr. Neil Sullivan That's correct. But those of us who live in California know that the dichotomy that exists between these these two cities is so distinguishable. There is no doubt in the minds of the people of these two cities what's going on in both, as far as the education, as far as the police, as far as civic attitude toward its people, as far as human relations. There is a Berkely. [Studs Terkel makes affirmative sound] There is an Oakland. And these are almost not compatible communities.

Studs Terkel As as Gregory Coffin is saying, I'm sure people outside the Midwest, outside Chicago, Evanston is identical with Winnetka, yet the differences-

Dr. Gregory Coffin I this is the impression I had when I was back on the East Coast where I've spent all of my life. This is my first sojourn in the Midwest. This was certainly the the impression I had. I'd heard about the Evanson schools for as long as I'd been in the education business. They have a great reputation, have had for over 50 years. And I just assume that Evanston, Winnekta, Wilmette were all the same. And then you have to be here to realize that there's really a tremendous difference. There's a a difference in the attitude of the people. We've heard recently of a few incidents where people who had moved up the North Shore, further up, where you can get more land for your money and perhaps more housing in some of the communities, are now moving back. That is, a few people have moved back because they're interested in having their kids grow up in a a heterogeneous situation.

Studs Terkel Isn't that a thing how two educators here, two distinguished and very courageous American educators, were talking suddenly the subject is not so much school it is. We're talking about housing now, too, aren't we?

Dr. Neil Sullivan Well I almost put my fingers-- a finger on the realtors here in this in this little story that-that's unfolding, that there is intrigue in what goes on and I think it's unfortunate, but the the critical point, I think, has just been mentioned by Dr. Coffin. We must stop the flight of the Caucasians away from the city. We need these people in Chicago. We need them in Evanston. We need them in every American city. Now he has indicated to you that he sees a trend in Evanston of a return of some of the Caucasian people to an integrated school system. I can tell you, now, I'm starting my fourth year out in in Berkeley. It happened. The Caucasians are coming back to Berkeley for the first time in ten years. They'd been leaving steadily for ten years. It's reversed. They're coming

Studs Terkel Let's point this out, one of the reasons. The fact is is when when you when you, Neil Sullivan and your colleagues, start integrating schools is that when this development is occurring, is that

Dr. Neil Sullivan That's right. When we started to integrate, now over three years ago, there was a movement of the Caucasians out. They were afraid of two things. And let's face it they were afraid of violence in the schools and they were afraid of loss of achievement and the pride of th-- of their child. Now these are real things, and you've got to face up to them. And you've got to prove with facts that these things aren't going to occur. If we're going to have more violence in our schools, if the Caucasian child is going to suffer, then I would oppose integration. The facts are these two things do not happen. There is not a loss of Caucasian a-achievement in the Berkeley schools, rather it was accelerated. There was less violence in all of our Berkeley schools. Now we've carefully evaluated this, but whether we evaluate it or not, parents know what's goes on, kids know what is going on. They're coming back in large numbers to the Berkeley schools. We have a problem in housing.

Dr. Gregory Coffin There's another aspect of that, just to to bear out what Neil says, and it's just last night I came from a meeting at Illinois State Beach Park where a group of our teachers had assembled to make final plans for an institute we're running this summer for 300 of our teachers. This is financed by Title Four the Civil Rights Act. And although the focus of the institute i-is on integrated education and is the kinds of things we're talking about before: language, patterns, and mannerisms and the things which connote condescension to the Negro child, very subconscious things that the white teacher does who has not taught Negro youngsters. The the real end result is that the teachers at the end of this five-week institute will be better prepared to teach all youngsters and so actually the the educational fare of all of the kids will go up, will be improved even though the the raison d'etre for having the institute had to do with integration.

Studs Terkel So it comes to that, comes to the benefit for the white child here again, getting him out of what I called his spiritual deprivation, spiritual ghetto.

Dr. Neil Sullivan Right, Dr. Coffin has mentioned this earlier in the the-- one of the great losers certainly is the Caucasian child who lives in isolation. And to break this wall down through integration with suddenly giving this child an opportunity to live in one world. And that really is the is the purpose of this whole thing. We don't want anyone living in isolation, neither Negro or Caucasian.

Studs Terkel You mentioned in housing, obviously, becomes a factor here, doesn't it? Housing becomes

Dr. Neil Sullivan Well i-it certainly, certainly does. When when realtors refuse to operate in a fair manner. Furthermore, you know, housing in its patterns-- in-incidentally I don't know whether that your listeners are aware that the Supreme Court of the United States just overruled the people of California. Now isn't that interesting? Proposition Fourteen which which was blocking fair housing in California was passed by the people of California. The people who wanted open housing lost. The Supreme Court said, "By golly, you can't do that to the

Studs Terkel people [Luckliy maybe?] the Supreme Court can overrule the legislator of the state of Illinois, too. [Studs Terkel and Dr. Neil Sullivan laugh] Something happened here. So this is-- 'cause this leads to a question isn't this-- is a key one, here again, two educators. Neil Sullivan and Gregory Coffin. How the Su-- the S-Supreme Court, there are judges, there is some enlightenment. At the same time, the conditioning, we're talking now to "the Man," I hate to use the phrase "man on the street." That's a condescending phrase. But the man, the American, whoever-- there is such a thing as an average, there isn't. That year after year of myth myth, isn't that it? Conditioning and unnamed fears. Fear of the stranger. Is an ov-- is a ho-- an overwhelming factor here, isn't it?

Dr. Neil Sullivan Sure it is. And it's it's the myth that we must attack and this isn't easy. Incidentally I'd like to share this onus, this responsibility, with other civic leaders. I I think that school administrators, the Coffins around the country and guys like Briggs and Cleveland, courageously fight this thing. And City Hall is perfectly willing to let the the-the school administrator do all the fighting. I want them to get into this thing with me. I'd like, you know, the mayor and the aldermen and all the fellows to to join in.

Studs Terkel You're talking now about Berkeley, California?

Dr. Neil Sullivan I'm talking about the United States of America. [laughs] Incidentally, I-I'm talking about cabinet members. I'm talking about governors I'm talking about senators. I I I, you know, don't like the attitude of some of these distinguished people. I met with a cabinet member within the month who who indicated to me that the answer to the problem in America was strong neighborhood schools and that he would break down this pattern of integration by open housing. I just don't wanna wait a hundred years.

Studs Terkel Yeah, yeah. There's something just not waiting a hundred years. Berkeley. We think of California and a two to one against open housing, fair housing. And yet there was a referendum in your city: Berkeley. Can we talk about this more? Now you were selected by the board of-- nine to nothing or something like that, to come there, right?

Dr. Neil Sullivan That's correct.

Studs Terkel Now something happened. Now now there was-- you you-- flack is the word that Dr. Coffin has used.

Dr. Neil Sullivan Yes, he's been through it.

Studs Terkel Opposition. [Dr. Neil Sullivan laughs] Yeah. What happened?

Dr. Neil Sullivan Well, I went out there in the spring and worked with the group on a plan of of integration and developed the plan with them and started its implementation in September, the year I arrived. Now it was a five-member board and not nine members, and of this five members, before I arrived in September, three of them had left Berkeley. So I now headed a two-member board, and they were to to appoint a third member so we could conduct business. But the parents for neighborhood schools decided to have a recall election and remove the two incumbents-

Studs Terkel Parents for Neighborhood Schools as a group that is against

Dr. Neil Sullivan Well I think that, a-as far as I'm concerned, I think they're they're against progress.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Dr. Neil Sullivan They're

Studs Terkel But I mean, this is a name they use, Parents for Neighborhood Schools is definitely a group against school integration I take

Dr. Neil Sullivan I believe so.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Dr. Neil Sullivan I I would i-identify them in that way. So they decided that they would recall the the the two members who remained on the board, and we had a very spirited election in which I think about 70,000 people cast ballots. And the the two incumbents won a resounding victory.

Studs Terkel More than you expected?

Dr. Neil Sullivan Oh sure, we were we were concerned because people were voting on integration in Berkeley, let's not kid ourselves. This was the question: shall we or shall we not integrate our schools? And we won a resounding victory. Incidentally, Oakland, our neighbors to the south, have lost election after election after election. Tax elections, bond elections. And Berkeley in the middle, between Richmond and and and Oakland, passes these elections. We-we're moving ahead towards integration, people are voting more money for our schools, retaining board members. Our neighboring cities turning these things down.

Studs Terkel Well let's-- this raises a key question. Gregory Coffin, Neil, so this question. Here are two communities next to one another, very close. One, are these people so basically different? Now we come to it, don't we?

Dr. Gregory Coffin Well there I think the philosophy of the people are are, this is really not the right word, not the philosophy but the the value systems of the people that live in these communities are the things that are different, which is why they go there to live. That is there was migration, as I understand it, from Evanston for a while. And I have no figures to substantiate this but I understand-- I know a number of families that have moved out and further up the North Shore. And I mentioned the fact that some families are moving in the reverse direction now. They the people that move out are the people that are running away. They're the people who are afraid and they're afraid of all kinds of things, but they're running away, so they move out. So they congregate then in one community and the people who are not afraid and who have a different code of values stay and other people from other parts of the country come in. We have almost, well we have weekly certainly, phone calls from people on the East Coast, the West Coast, been transferred to Chicago. "We've heard about your schools. Tell us more about them," and they more and more frequently now mention the whole aspect of what what is the population of the schools? Are they heterogeneous or homogeneous? And and so they decide they could pick from any one of fifty suburbs around Chicago, they decide well may-- Evanston's the place we wanna be because this is the kind of atmosphere we want our kids in.

Dr. Neil Sullivan I I I definitely believe this. As far as the West Coast is concerned in the Bay Area, the racial composition of Oakland and Berkeley is the same. Oakland refuses to do anything about school integration. The Negroes constantly vote down any increase in taxes. They're completely disappointed and discouraged with the establishment. They won't give them more money to run their schools. Now what happens, they are the losers. Obviously. Poor education. But believe me, the Caucasian kids are even the bigger losers in this thing.

Studs Terkel Yeah, isn't-

Dr. Gregory Coffin We have a a contrasting situation, too. It's not next door, but it's a place called Waukegan, which has a population not unlike ours in many respects. It is unlike ours in some respects, but they have a de facto segregation Negro situation. And last fall when we were talking about our integration plan before it had been adopted by the board, I sort of resented the headline I saw on a paper of "The Tale of Two Cities" kind of thing. Subsequent to that, I've been the Waukegan, spent some time talking with groups there. And I'm convinced that the-- our situation vis-à-vis Waukegan is like Neil's situation with Oakland and Berkeley. One community wants to do something to solve its problems and the other community wants to preserve the status quo and is disillusioned by what the status quo is or what the contributions of the status quo are to the lives of the people in the community.

Studs Terkel You know as-- and I realize that Neil Sullivan, Superintendent of Schools of Berkeley, California and 'fore that of Prince Edward County, Virginia, before that of posh Williston in in New York. And Gregory Coffin of Darien, [telephone rings in background] Connecticut, now of Evanston, have to be at a luncheon. This luncheon sponsored by the committee [telephone rings in background] of integrate the schools and that-

Dr. Neil Sullivan Integrated Education Magazine.

Studs Terkel Integrated Education Magazine and some of the distinguished, might I add, a very courageous educators various parts of the country gathered, and Dr. Sullivan and Coffin a part of the panels. But this subject comes back to are these people so basically different, I would say, of Oakland as against Berkley, Evanston as against Waukegan? Or isn't it a question, too, of a certain step being taken by the establishments of these cities and by the choice of certain educators, too?

Dr. Neil Sullivan Oh, I definitely think so.

Studs Terkel Yeah, yeah. Come back to that.

Dr. Neil Sullivan The the image of your school is the image of the Board of Education. And-

Studs Terkel And the image of the Board of Education [will be?] the image of the power structure.

Dr. Neil Sullivan Absolutely.

Studs Terkel Possibly. Anything else you care to say, Gregory

Dr. Gregory Coffin I would say the the image of the Board of Education is the image of a segment of the power structure. But as Neil pointed out earlier, it's not necessarily an image of the city-wide power structure.

Studs Terkel It's own has this built-in comment. And here we face a new year. Happy New Year. Thank you very much, Neil Sullivan.

Dr. Neil Sullivan I'm glad you stopped there.

Dr. Gregory Coffin I was one-