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As a young civil rights lawyer, U.W. Clemon lost an important desegregation battle against the Jefferson County school district in Alabama.
A federal appeals court later reversed in his favor, however, with orders that set in motion desegregation in schools there and across the country. A lifetime of litigation later, Clemon lost it again.
In Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, a trial judge said the people of Gardendale could secede from the school district to form their own school system so long as they complied with the decades-old orders. That was not a victory for civil rights -- until the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
The appeals court said Judge Madeline Haikala correctly concluded that Gardendale organizers acted to exclude black children from the proposed school system, but she erroneously allowed them to secede.
"The finding that a racially discriminatory purpose motivated the Gardendale Board also obliged the district court to deny the motion to secede," the appellate panel said.
The judges said splinter districts may form to assert local control, but their plans cannot impede desegregation efforts. The 1971 desegregation orders in the case still apply to the Jefferson school district today.
The Eleventh Circuit decision is part of a battle for educational quality that started before the Civil War and should have ended with Brown v. Board of Education. But the conflict continues through the school secessionist movement in the United States.
In Alabama, any town of 5,000 residents may form their own school district. While doing so, some have demographically excluded blacks.
Clemon, who lived through segregation, has been fighting it his entire career. First as a lawyer and then as a federal judge, he saw segregation come and go and come back again.
In "The Resegregation of Jefferson County," last year the New York Times told his story within the story of racial integration in American schools. Clemon said he couldn't believe it when the trial judge ruled Gardendale discriminated against blacks, but allowed the proposed school district to secede.
"I never envisioned that I would be fighting in 2017 essentially the same battle that I thought I won in 1971," Clemon said. "But the battle is just not over."
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