In 1975, Judge James Meredith approved a consent decree that attempted to address residence-based racial imbalance in St. Louis schools and to prevent lengthy and angry litigation. That same year my family moved to Brentwood a small suburb of St. Louis. I was five years old.
John Ashcroft was then Missouri’s Assistant Attorney General. In 1976 he would become Missouri’s Attorney General, a position he would hold until 1985, the year I left the state.
Without realizing it at the time, woven through my childhood years in Missouri would be the story of St. Louis’ community struggle to end school segregation and the efforts of John Ashcroft, acting as the agent of the State, to derail the process.
During our residence in Missouri, my parents would be part of ad hoc committees, school boards, and interdistrict coordinating councils to support voluntary metropolitan-wide desegregation.
The voluntary desegregation plan was to involve genuine student and parent choice. It promised a commitment to improve the quality of all city schools, while holding the districts accountable for rectifying previous and ongoing practices that had the effect of discrimination against African American students based on race.
The plan was not perfect, but it was a genuine attempt to avoid the white flight that was taking place in cities such as Detroit where mandatory intradistrict remedies were imposed.
In April of 1982, Brentwood School district joined the volunteer desegregation program.
That following September, a handful of new students stumbled off a school bus and entered my Junior High School.
Angry mobs, TV cameras, or armed security did not greet them, never the less, they were the legacy of the Little Rock Nine; Jefferson Thomas, Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray, Elizabeth Eckford, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo, Terrance Roberts, Minniejean Brown, Ernest Green.
These were students standing up to make real, educational opportunities which had been promised them more than twenty-five years before in the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. the Board of Education.
My classmates’ names will not be recorded in any history books, but the story of the struggle for desegregation of the St. Louis schools takes on new meaning with the nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General of the United States.
Close to a half century after Brown, it is unfathomable to me that we could reward a man whom I personally witnessed making his political career stonewalling desegregation in the Missouri schools by giving him the job of enforcing the civil rights laws of this land.
As I listen to the first days of John Ashcroft’s confirmation hearings, politicians and scholars are telling me that John Ashcroft is a man of integrity and intelligence.
None of these pontificators know John Ashcroft the way I knew John Ashcroft, through the eyes of a schoolchild. As John Ashcroft, himself struggles to distance himself from the very actions, which brought him to political power; I cannot forget our joint past.
I never met Missouri Attorney General John Ashcroft in person, but his specter was a frequent uninvited guest at my family’s many dinner-table debates.
Ashcroft failed to comply with a court order, filed another court appeal, or used his office as a bully pulpit to rally community fears about voluntary desegregation being an “outrage against human decency.”
His words and actions invaded my home; scorched my parents’ tongues, and sent them off into hours of animated resistance to his beliefs about race, religion, and community.
I learned then that Ashcroft would use tactics of division and dogmatically drive a wedge of fear into a community if it served a strategic purpose aligned with his own narrow moral code.
Ashcroft seemed to view promoting “community safety” as a mainstay of his civic duties. In his mind, this meant using his office to fight desegregation in the same way he would wage a war on drugs.
Though the friendships that I was forming across lines of race, class, and geography were not illegal, they violated Ashcroft’s social code.
Remembering those days, I want to ask Ashcroft, what were you so afraid of? Was it the litter of kittens shared across neighborhoods, or the stale box of valentine chocolates offered across race?
My memories are harmless. His actions were not.
Since my school days, Ashcroft has given me many reasons to oppose him as Attorney General for this country, from his extreme positions on women’s rights, civil rights, freedom of choice, hate crimes, the death penalty, gay rights, and domestic violence prevention.
However, it is for his actions from two decades ago as Attorney General of Missouri that embolden me to take pen in hand.
In a Missouri classroom, I learned how a bill became a law; in a Missouri community, I learned how the law can be manipulated in the hands of an Attorney General to benefit a few and hurt many.
Mr. Ashcroft, the children that you stepped on climbing the political ladder have grown up.
Jennifer Rakowski is the associate director of San Francisco-based Community United Against Violence.