Save Our Schools and the Committee for Public Education
Organized white support for keeping public schools open in New Orleans
In the fall of 1959, a group of white women in New Orleans established an organization in an effort to “Save Our Schools.” The goal of the organization was to keep the public schools open in the face of threats to close down the school system rather than comply with Judge Skelly Wright’s order to desegregate. Initially the group met in private to discuss how to build support for maintaining free, public schools. Save Our Schools, or “SOS” as it was commonly known, aimed most of its efforts at the city’s influential white leaders. In the spring of 1960, SOS opened a public campaign that included newsletters, personal calls on business and political leaders, and the placement of newspaper announcements about the costs that would result from a closure of New Orleans schools. SOS hired a professional advertising agency to advise its public campaign, and the members were assisted by representatives of the Southern Regional Council, a long-standing organization devoted to interracial cooperation. After consulting with black leaders in New Orleans, the officers of SOS decided to keep their membership all white, just as they avoided any public comments in favor of integration.
In the fall of 1960, SOS campaigned for the reelection of a school board member who had agreed to abide by the federal court’s desegregation order. After the desegregation order went into effect, SOS members volunteered to drive white children to the desegregated schools. Mary Sand, the director of SOS, faced physical threats on her way to the schools and received a funeral wreath at her home. Unlike the parents of the white students at the desegregated schools, most of the members of SOS were financially independent and immune from the most common sorts of reprisals for accepting desegregation. Although membership in SOS reached close to 1,500 individuals, the group’s impact was limited by the intimidation of the Citizens Council and the perception among many whites that the group’s leaders were committed to integration.
Another organization committed to keeping public schools open in New Orleans, the Committee for Public Education, had little interaction with Save Our Schools. The Committee for Public Education was organized by whites who did not support integration but recognized the enormous economic and political damage that would result if the Orleans Parish School Board or other school districts in Louisiana chose to close public schools rather than integrate. The Committee for Public Education was organized in June 1960 and gained support from the four school board members who were willing to accept desegregation. It also won allies from the Junior Chamber of Commerce and several religious groups in New Orleans.
The Committee for Public Education organized a group of white parents who filed suit in the U.S. District Court in an effort to ensure schools would remain open. The suit asked Judge Wright to withdraw his desegregation order or to bar state officials from interfering with the operation of the public schools. As the parents expected, Wright refused to withdraw the desegregation order and merged the Committee for Public Education suit with one filed by A.P. Tureaud, who also asked for an order prohibiting state officials from interfering with school administration in New Orleans. Wright, writing for a three-judge district court, ordered the state officials not to interfere with the school board’s plan for desegregation.
Bush v. Orleans Parish School Board and the Desegregation of New Orleans Schools