The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

We Can Do It: A Community Takes on the Challenge of School Desegregation

By Michael T. Gengler Book Reviews

Concluding that separate is never equal, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision gave no guidance on how to integrate schools. Two decades of slow progress followed. Published in 2018, We Can Do It: A Community Takes on the Challenge of School Desegregation, offers a detailed, holistic account of school desegregation between 1965-1973, the crucial inflection point in Southern public education. Underscoring the community benefit to strong public schools, attorney turned author Michael T. Gengler recounts Alachua County’s challenges in working toward full integration.

Dense for the average reader, the book brings greater insight into the logistical, administrative, and personal struggles to achieve school desegregation. Directing profits to an education foundation, Gengler provides a valuable resource, particularly for a local history buff or subject-matter expert. Personal accounts paint a vivid picture of what it was like to live through the trials and triumphs of the time. Most astonishing were student accounts. Considered the pawns of school desegregation, few understood at the time that the court, not school boards, initiated desegregation. Yet, when students were entrusted with decisions about how to successfully integrate their schools, they found workable solutions; a promising outlook for tomorrow’s troubles.

Located in Alachua County is the University of Florida, for which the county’s public education system provided a staff recruiting and retention tool. Reportedly slow to respond to the changing environment, its College of Education was described as a “villain” throughout school desegregation efforts. While the repetitive and non-linear presentation is confused at times, Gengler’s opinion-neutral presentation allows readers to form their own conclusions. Significantly, desegregation led to the closing of most black schools. White schools became the model for education, forcing black students into white communities and culture. “White flight” from integrated public schools led to an influx of private schools; just one of desegregation’s myriad unforeseen consequences. Some historically black schools were saved through magnet programs aimed at attracting a diverse student body. Interesting was the genesis of our educational system’s current features. As community epicenters, schools became expected to shoulder societal problems like student health. Despite the interconnectedness of our country’s educational and social systems, schools were not constitutionally required to address de facto segregation, ending indefinite judicial oversight but foreshadowing contemporary school segregation resulting from racial isolation, usually in low-income areas.

School desegregation revealed the sometimes circuitous nature of history. While “freedom of choice” was prohibited as a way to achieve Brown’s directives, 40 years later, Florida ironically reimplemented this vestige of the past, allowing students to select their desired public or charter school. A look back led the author, and his interviewees, to question the success of school desegregation in Alachua County; the community revealed mixed feelings. What started as a quest for equality in education is now a question of equity in achieving the ideals that fueled Brown and its progenies. The book highlights history’s lessons with a view toward the future; the author envisioning success in the hands of caring educators.

Lyndsey E. Siara is a member of The Florida Bar.