Milbank Associate Gary Crosby helped the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) achieve victory in an Alabama school desegregation fight.
His father’s experience attending a segregated Alabama school in the 1960s made it all the more meaningful.
Crosby and the LDF won reversal of a federal trial court’s decision that Gardendale, Ala., could leave the more racially diverse Jefferson County school system and carve out its own.
The victory came in a long-running suit.
The LDF sued the Jefferson County School District in 1965 to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The court-ordered remedial desegretation plan, entered in 1971, remains in effect.
Gardendale announced its intention to separate from the Jefferson County School District in 2014, several years after the county built a new $51 million high school in the city for the use of all county students, the LDF said.
The secession would have created a district significantly whiter than the county as a whole, forcing some students to attend more racially segregated schools, the LDF said.
In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Gardendale could not separate. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama had found the action motivated by intentional racial discrimination but nonetheless permitted it.
Gardendale won’t continue to litigate the case, Chris Kemmitt, LDF Senior Counsel, told Bloomberg Law.
Personal Connection for Milbank Attorney
For Crosby, a former public school teacher in New Orleans who became involved with the case in 2016, the personal connection made it particularly significant.
“It was my dream case right out of law school because it allowed me to work with and learn from a brilliant team of LDF attorneys,” Crosby, a member of the litigation and arbitration group at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy in New York, told Bloomberg Law.
His work on the case was partly driven by his father’s experience living under de jure racial segregation in Alabama and finally attending a racially integrated public middle school there.
When the desegregation case against Jefferson County was filed in 1965, “my father was a ten-year old student at the segregated school for Black students in Walker County, Alabama,” Crosby said.
The case also hit “close to home” for Crosby because he grew up in a small Alabama city less than 45 miles from Gardendale.
‘A Message of Inferiority’
A particularly powerful moment occurred during trial in the district court, when Judge Madeline H. Haikala handed Gardendale’s superintendent a copy of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and read parts of it to him, Crosby said.
“One sentence in particular that she read was that ‘[a] sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.’ As she read out loud parts of the decision, I looked at Judge Clemon and tears were streaming down his face,” Crosby said.
Retired judge U.W. Clemon served as co-counsel with the LDF attorneys. Clemon, appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District in Alabama in 1980, was the first African-American judge to serve on the federal bench in Alabama.
Gardendale’s attempt to create its own school system and its original plan to exclude certain black schoolchildren from the proposed new system sent a clear message of inferiority to black students, Crosby said.
“In a way, Judge Haikala’s exercise was a lesson for the advocates of Gardendale’s separation efforts and Gardendale’s superintendent, who had never hired or worked with a black teacher or administrator in his 17-year career in education,” he said.
Crosby helped the LDF lawyers with all aspects of trial preparation.
The Milbank associate also assisted LDF attorneys with the Eleventh Circuit appeal by participating in two moot arguments, serving as a mock judge, and helping craft responses to difficult questions.
Crosby faced a last-minute challenge on the morning of the argument in the appeals court, when he assisted LDF attorneys with “quickly analyzing and distinguishing cases filed by opposing counsel less than five minutes before LDF presented its arguments before the three-judge panel,” he said.
Resegregation a Major Concern, LDF Says
Since the 1971 order, some vestiges of the previously segregated school system have been removed, LDF said. But progress in the county has been slowed by “white flight” splinter districts-individual municipalities that have left the county school district to form their own independent districts.
“By one count, more than 70 municipalities across the country have seceded from their parent school districts since 2000,” Kemmitt said.
These communities are typically much whiter than the county and consistently wealthier, and their departure removes valuable resources from the county schools while increasing the racial imbalance in those schools, LDF said.
The plaintiffs here feel vindicated by the final result, Kemmitt said.
Resegregation is a major issue today, and the hope is that decisions like this one can help other communities stop this from happening in their home towns, Kemmitt said.
“Quality public education cannot be reserved for communities that are rich and white,” he said.