Seeking Parity

Two Vanderbilt alumni reflect on their 40-year quest to eliminate the vestiges of segregation from Tennessee's higher education system.

by John Spragens '12
George Barrett '57 and Rita Sanders Geier '70

George Barrett '57 and
Rita Sanders Geier '70

At the time, Rita Sanders Geier '70 was only 23, an idealistic first-year law student, but she knew a good education when she saw one. It was 1968, and Geier, already bearing an undergraduate degree from Fisk, had recently returned to her native south with a master's in history from the University of Chicago, where she had studied under the legendary historian John Hope Franklin. Teaching part-time at Tennessee State University, a historically black school in Nashville, Geier could immediately see the devastating effects of officially abolished segregation all around her: far fewer resources, a paltry offering of academic programs, crumbling infrastructure—all while the University of Tennessee was making plans to open a prominent new campus in downtown Nashville. "The duality was clear," she recalled. "We really had two different education systems, and this was the plantation school."

At the urging of her friend Ruth Robinson Cooper '68, Geier described the situation at TSU to George Barrett '57, a Nashville labor lawyer and civil rights crusader. Together, Geier and Barrett developed a novel legal theory: under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the state not only had an obligation to end de jure segregation, it had an affirmative duty to eliminate de facto segregation as well. By constructing a new, overwhelmingly white UT-Nashville campus two miles from Tennessee State, an underfunded, neglected, historically African-American school, the pair argued, the state of Tennessee would be violating its Title VI obligation to provide equal access to education. Barrett filed suit to stop the new construction, with Geier as the named plaintiff.

Neither Geier nor Barrett ever imagined that the ensuing federal court battle would last 38 years, span the tenure of seven governors and two federal judges, reshape Tennessee's university system, and set a benchmark for higher education reforms across the south. Then again, neither of them had planned on this unlikely alliance, a groundbreaking effort that grew out of their shared idealism, determination and patience.

Barrett and Geier technically lost the first motion they filed, but as with many twists and turns in the four-decade case, the ruling against them disguised an important victory. In their request for a preliminary injunction, Barrett and Geier, who had begun clerking at Barrett's law office in order to assist on her own class-action case, asked Judge Frank Gray Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee to block the state from continuing the expansion of UT-Nashville's campus. The motion was denied. In his order denying relief, however, Judge Gray found that the "dual system of education created originally by law has not been effectively dismantled" in Tennessee, and that "the naked fact of an open-door policy" of mixed-race admission did not in itself relieve the state of its affirmative duty under the Constitution to eliminate the vestiges of segregation. He ordered the state to submit a plan to desegregate its higher educational institutions, paying particular attention to TSU.

In denying the injunction, Judge Gray had adopted the plaintiffs' legal theory. It was, Geier would later say, a "jolt" to the case.

Meanwhile, the federal government, which Barrett had originally named a defendant in the lawsuit because it had contributed funds to the UT-Nashville expansion, switched sides that first year and became a plaintiff-intervenor. With the Justice Department on their side, new plaintiffs entering their suit, and a district court order in their favor, Barrett and Geier had become a statewide force to be reckoned with. "We sued the whole system," Barrett said. In addition to the federal government, at one point their suit also named Tennessee's government, its Board of Education and Higher Education Commission, the entire UT system and even TSU itself.

Geier praised Barrett as the only lawyer in the state who would have had the audacity to bring the suit. "When George takes on something, he's a gladiator, a warrior with an indomitable spirit," she said. "And of course, we thought we had right on our side." Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr., who inherited the case in 1978 after Gray's death, describes Barrett as Nashville's Don Quixote: "If you didn't have a windmill for him to charge, he'd construct one," he said. "George is one of my favorite people. I have great admiration for him."

“We had unleashed a dragon, and we didn't know where it would end up.”

But as the early 1970s registered little progress toward desegregating higher education—and specifically TSU, which remained 99 percent African-American—Judge Gray ordered further action from the state. By 1973, new plaintiffs led by TSU Professor Ray Richardson had joined the suit in an effort to protect the interests of TSU's African-American students, faculty and staff, and take issue with elements of the state's desegregation plan. It was, Geier recalled, an unsettling period for all parties, including TSU, which was threatened with the loss of its identity as a historically black school. The reform of an entire educational system would inevitably come with costs and dislocations, and anyone with even a small interest in the status quo could be threatened by the lawsuit. "A lot of people were cheering [the desegregation order] as a big victory, but a lot of people were very afraid, too," she said. "We had unleashed a dragon, and we didn't know where it would end up. So many people looked at me and said, 'Who are you to come in here and turn our lives upside down?' It would be great to do no harm to people, but that wasn't the goal. I look back and don't know if I would have been so bold and courageous if I'd had a mortgage to pay."

After continued slow progress on desegregation, the Justice Department proposed merging UT-Nashville into TSU. Judge Gray held a month-long evidentiary hearing, ultimately deciding in 1977 that the goals of desegregation could not be met while UT-Nashville remained in competition with TSU. He ordered the merger. Several years and many merger-related disputes later, Judge Wiseman allowed a group predominantly composed of white faculty and students formerly affiliated with UT-Nashville to intervene as plaintiffs. Barrett jokes that, given the number of plaintiffs and schools represented in the lawsuit, "at one point half the lawyers in the state were involved in this case." Judge Wiseman ultimately ordered the parties to stop squabbling and work out their differences, and in 1985 they reached a stipulation of settlement that called for improvements to TSU's academic programs and its physical plant, and new programs to recruit and retain African-American faculty and students on the state's predominantly white campuses.

Over the next several years, the plaintiffs grew dissatisfied with the state's foot-dragging in implementing the settlement. Though more than 20 years had passed since the lawsuit had been filed, a promise of $127 million of new funding for TSU's physical infrastructure materialized only after student protests over deplorable living conditions embarrassed the state in 1990. In 1996, a few years after the Supreme Court announced its decision in United States v. Fordice, in which the Court held that states do not meet their constitutional obligation to eliminate the vestiges of segregation simply by maintaining race-neutral admissions policies but instead must eliminate policies that continue to have segregative effects, the state moved to be dismissed from the Geier case. Plaintiffs objected vociferously, and the motion was denied. In 1999, as the case sat stalled, Barrett called his friend Justin Wilson '70, deputy to Governor Don Sundquist. "Justin has a real sense of fairness—even if he is a Republican," Barrett said wryly. Wilson and Barrett sat down over lunch and discussed a resolution to the lawsuit. With Wilson's support, the response from Sundquist was encouraging. It was time to settle the case once and for all.

But how to end a lawsuit that had already consumed more than 30 years of the state's attention—a dispute in which the parties had reached some delicate agreements only to see them collapse amid mutual mistrust? Carlos Gonzalez '89 played a crucial role. After the parties agreed in 2000 to enter voluntary mediation, Judge Wiseman appointed Gonzalez, a federal mediator with experience in cases involving the vestiges of segregation, to reach a definitive agreement and oversee a court-monitored implementation process. As it turned out, reaching agreement was easy; that had occurred 15 years earlier. The difficulty came in ensuring the agreement was implemented to everyone's satisfaction. Gonzalez set out to build trust. "The year that we spent mediating the case was also spent building confidence among the parties, and between the court and the state," and everyone else who was involved, he recalls. Gonzalez describes the case as "essentially political." It impacted state executive powers and legislative funding prerogatives, and threatened to reshape and realign socially powerful institutions across the state.

By 2001, the parties had drafted and filed a new consent decree with the court. Then began what Gonzalez describes as a "five-year journey" to unite the various political and institutional actors around the commitments in the consent decree and keep them invested in its success. Visits with political leaders could be especially painful, Gonzalez recalls. "Here I am a guy from Georgia with a name they couldn't pronounce, trying to convince them that this lawsuit needed to be settled—and oh, by the way, it's going to cost several hundred million dollars," he said. Gonzalez describes it as a team effort. Without the parties' agreement to work together toward a common purpose, Judge Wiseman's sage political advice, and the unwavering commitment of Barrett and Geier, it could not have been successful. And everyone involved, including Judge Wiseman, still agree that a lasting agreement could never have been reached without Gonzalez' skillful mediation efforts.

Entered in September 2001, the consent decree called for $23 million in campus renovations for TSU, a host of new academic and programmatic offerings, increased efforts to recruit underrepresented students and faculty at schools across the state (including whites and Latinos at TSU), and dozens of other provisions designed to promote parity among institutions, racial and curricular diversity, and choice for students, all with a price tag of $77 million. "We were trying to create a system of higher education where students made choices about where they would like to attend school, unfettered by the vestiges of segregation," says Gonzalez. Estimates of the consent decree's total benefit to the state higher education system, including scholarships and other ongoing state programs, surpassed $200 million.

Finally, in September 2006, 38 years after the lawsuit was first filed, the parties jointly filed a motion to dismiss the case with prejudice. It was a proud day for the state, the court, the many parties and the mediator. For Rita Geier and her lawyer, George Barrett, it was bittersweet. "Legal victories can be hollow," said Geier, whose involvement in the suit literally spanned her legal career. "It took a lot of work and a lot of people pushing over the years to make this happen. I had mixed feelings about giving up the protection of the court, but it was time." Barrett agrees. "You can only rely on the courts so long," he said. "The courts can lay the parameters down and give encouragement, but ultimately, the political branches have to implement the law."

"We had unleashed a dragon, and we didn't know where it would end up."

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