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Commentary: Minnie Liddell's quest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2009 - She was born in Starkville, Miss., the descendent of slaves but she spent most of her life in St. Louis and experienced the lingering impediments of Jim Crow laws.

In the face of the racial inscriptions imposed on her children, Minnie Liddell joined with several other parents who brought a lawsuit against the segregated St. Louis city school district in 1972.

As she said, "I'll send my son by mule or train to Colorado if it means he will have an opportunity to compete in today's society."

She was 27 years old when she received her high school equivalency certificate. "I was just a young housewife when this desegregation case began. I had grown up with it; and, if there is any honor in what I've done, it is that my life has made a difference for the common good, and I expect my children to continue this battle."

To substantiate her work, she studied to be a paralegal.

"I had to do something about segregation," she said. "When we started our crusade, we had no idea where the struggle would take us. We had no money and very little support. Not even the black community was responsive. But we were determined to improve the quality of education for our children."

The lawsuit to force the St. Louis school board to equalize spending throughout the district and desegregate schools meandered through the courts for 11 years.

In 1983, Federal Judge William Hungate took charge of the litigation.

The result was the creation of the Voluntary Interdistrict Desegregation Program, which about 15,000 black students bused daily to county schools.

The term "voluntary" is misleading. The judge ruled that 18 districts beyond the St. Louis boundaries would cooperate or suffer judicial consequences. So began the largest transfer project in the nation. To soften the endeavor, districts were recipients of a generous check for each child enrolled in their confines. At some points over the years and for some districts, the program was a financial bonanza. There were no restrictions on how the money was to be spent. Meanwhile, the St. Louis system lost a huge contingent of students and teachers. And eventually lost its state accreditation.

We are of the humble opinion that we have the right to enjoy the privileges of the free men. But that we do not will appear in many instances, and we beg to mention one of many, that being is the education of our children which receive no benefit from the free schools in the town of Boston, which we think a great grievance, as by woeful experience we now feel the want of a common education, for our rising, offspring, to see them in ignorance when there is provision made for others and yet we can't enjoy them, and for no other reason can be given than this they are black ... "We therefore pray your honors that some provision be made for the education of our dear children. And, in duty bound, shall ever pray. — A petition by slaves to the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1787.


There was a time when some saw a unified metropolitan school district. But that was not to be. Now as the experiment winds down, resegregation of the city district is underway.

Minnie Liddell swore she would be a "fly in the authorities' butter milk." She fought for parity in the expenditures for public schools. Ladue and St. Louis should receive the same funding for their students. If Ladue people want to send their children to Switzerland, she believed, that is their right -- but here at home we all work off the same sheet. Her community had no boundaries; there are no dividing lines. And she swore to the day of her death that she would be kicking and screaming to achieve equality in education for all children.

In October 1997, a hearing was held to provide an assessment of the desegregation program. Toward midnight, Minnie Liddell, a weary crusader took the stand. The audience had thinned; but everyone who remained, including the judge, knew they were in the presence of poised and perfected greatness.

"All we have been asking for these last 25 years," said Liddell, "is for quality, integrated education for all our children from Ladue to the Ville. Everyone wants to know whether integration works. Well, I can tell you what didn't work - segregated education didn't work. It didn't work for me and it didn't work for a lot of kids. There is only one moral course - to provide all of our children quality, integrated education. Any way you slice it that is what America is about. We can make no compromise to that."

The audience gave her a standing ovation. And no one asked her any questions. No one dared to.

At the close of the court scene in Harper Lee's classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird," the black and white people sitting in the balcony all stood as Atticus Finch, who had bravely and nobly defended a black man for a crime he did not commit, walked out of the courtroom. At that moment, a young girl looked at her daddy and asked, "Why they doin' that?" and he replied, "well, daughter, a great and good person is pass'n' by."

That was Minnie Liddell.

Robert W. Tabscott, a Presbyterian minister, heads the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Society. One of its projects has been to put together stories of the diverse men and women who were important to this area's history. Ther preceeding is adapted from that work.