Denver Desegregation

This piece is a family affair: an amalgamation of anecdotes, thoughts and memories of A. Edgar Benton (my grandfather) and Margrit Benton (my mother), prepared and consolidated by Zach Nelson (myself).


My immersion in civil rights issues within K-12 public education in the Denver Public Schools was framed by two dates: May, 1963, when I was elected to the DPS Board of Education, and July, 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted.

 I sat quietly, expectantly. I regarded my grandfather, A. Edgar Benton, across the room, his face illuminated by the sunlight piercing through the oscillating dust. I was drawn to his hands, noting that the skin was mottled, wracked by a bout of mild arthritis and eight decades of exposure to the high desert sun. The fingers are scarred; vestiges of a lifetime spent working with his hands. With a sharp inhalation of breath, he began to speak.

I quickly became aware that a number of the 115 Denver schools were racially segregated. It was apparent that the segregation was not only caused by segregation of the neighborhood housing, but also by the deliberate drawing of school attendance boundaries to keep the black students in black schools. With these conditions in mind, I began conversations in the black community.  I talked to individuals, neighborhood groups, church congregations and others, including students. Generally, I found a quiet resignation, and acceptance of the reality of segregation.  But, there also were some groups and individuals who spoke out against the status quo.

He is a talker. Always has been. Family members say it runs in the blood—loquacious genes and a hard head with a compulsion to stand firm in torrents of opposition. To me, he is a benevolent titan, representing a seamless blend of Atticus Finch, Huckleberry Finn and even a bit of Jay Leno—enemy to an intolerant few, yet loved and respected by many. I may just be a doting grandson, but I believe there is at least a sliver of truth in this description.

However, over a fairly short period time, a change in attitude began to occur.  For example, the Colorado Urban League appeared before the School Board and urged that the proposed construction of a new school not be approved because the proposed attendance boundaries would result in a segregated school the day it opened. The administration’s proposal was defeated by a divided vote. As I became more informed about the extent of the segregation, and the role of the Board and Administration in aiding and abetting the segregation, I became more outspoken in proposing a comprehensive plan for desegregation of the Denver schools.

 “Outspoken” is a pittance, a feeble word that barely covers the extent of his brutish resolve. One of my grandfather’s friends told me: ‘when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89, I rushed into my office and snidely remarked ‘Ed, how does it feel to be the last surviving Communist in the entire Western world?’ Ed’s politics may border on red, but his heart is solid gold.”

By this time, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been enacted. Even though the terms of the Act prevented segregation of public schools, there was substantial support in the Congress for prohibiting transportation of students to achieve desegregation, such transportation being referred to as “Forced Busing.” The prohibition was not included in the Act.

 He pauses and remarks, “Let’s take a break. The sound of my own voice is putting me to sleep. It is time for my medicine.” He gingerly stretches his gangly legs and walks to the kitchen. Minutes later, he returns with aforementioned ‘medicine’—a double shot of vintage Macallan whiskey; he even brings a hearty dose for me. We toast to the President, who is one of his heroes, our health, and gulp it down. My body is unaccustomed to such strong alternative medicine and I sputter and gurgle, struggling to keep the warm, fiery, amber liquid in my stomach and not splattered onto the dark teak coffee table.

In 1965, Rachel Noel, a black woman, was elected to the Board. Three years later, in 1968, Rachel and I, with two other Board members proposed to the Board a Resolution which directed the Superintendent to prepare and present to the Board a Desegregation Plan for the schools. The Plan was adopted by a 4 to 3 vote, and the implementation process began. The Plan did include a significant student transportation provision. A substantial segment of the community was outraged, and turmoil ensued.

Demonstrations, picketing, and various other activities took place throughout the city. This situation continued for weeks and became the focal point of the School Board election in May of 1969, when my term expired.  Despite my best efforts to find a qualified and less controversial person to replace me as a candidate, I was unsuccessful. So, I sought re-election.

As I sat listening to his tales of systemic injustice and the excruciating intolerance and ignorance of our fellow Americans in the turbulent days of the 60’s and 70’s, my mind drifted. Do we live in a country where racism and bigotry are dead? Some may point to the fact that we have a black president, so of course, to them the answer is yes and the debate is over. However, listening to my grandfather speak of the hatred and vitriol directed against people who sought their rights and the corresponding courage and dignity of those who insisted upon them was difficult and, at the same time, inspiring to hear. I was jolted into present reality: Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, sit-ins in the offices of presidents of esteemed colleges and universities, the list goes on. I’m reminded of the angry, grimacing faces of furious protesters in Southern California forcing busloads of women, children and babies—all illegal immigrants—to turn about this summer as they sought asylum in our ‘freedom-and-liberty-loving’ embrace. Martin Luther King said: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice," but is this present manifestation of justice one rooted in an equitable morality or a sullied justice encased in false promises and a claw-like stranglehold on our dark past?

The campaign was brutal.  A friend who ran for the other open seat, and I argued that the fundamental issue was not only to eliminate the so-called “Separate But Equal Doctrine” which had been advanced as justification for segregated schools, but to comply with the express terms of the Civil Rights Act, and to uphold the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Our two opponents argued that the issue was “Massive, Forced Cross-Town, Mandatory Busing.” In addition they pledged that when elected they would promptly repeal the Resolution under which the desegregation effort was taking place.

 The previous opposition to the Plan was paled in comparison to what occurred during the election campaign: burning of school buses, molotov cocktails thrown at residences of Plan supporters, death threats. Vicious and vile telephone calls and letters were received. Early on election evening, it was clear that my friend and I would lose by more than 2 to 1. So, the first stage of the battle was over.

My grandfather walks over to his computer and plays a recording of a Colorado Public Radio piece commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the monumental Keyes v. School District Number 1, a landmark piece of legislation mandating the integration of public schools in 1973, five long years after Ed’s defeat. Denver was the first city outside the South to declare integration. The recording sputters to life and Ed’s voice comes through strong and clear, “There were phone calls at 3 in the morning, with gruff male voices warning, ‘There’s a man in the park behind your house with a gun and he’s going to kill you.’ To which I said, ‘I’m sorry, you have the wrong number.’” The laughter of the interviewer is readily audible.

Shortly after the new Board repealed the Desegregation Resolution, the case of Keyes et al. v. School District No. 1, was filed in the United States District Court in Denver, seeking re-instatement of the Desegregation Plan. After an extensive trial, Judge William Doyle restored the Plan. The School District appealed, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Doyle’s decision. Thereafter, the United States Supreme Court reversed the 10th Circuit and the Plan was returned to the DPS for continued implementation.

An anecdote: After Judge Doyle’s decision, there was a large gathering in the street in front of the DPS Administration Building, with people carrying large signs which read: “BOIL DOYLE IN OIL.”

After the litigation was final, the Board and Administration made feeble efforts to implement the program. If they had spent half of the effort and half of the funds that were spent in the failed litigation, the schools would have greatly benefited.

But, at the end of it all, education in Denver was enhanced, and the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act were preserved.

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In my grandfather’s house, tucked away behind the door of a closet in the bathroom is a small, framed newspaper article titled “Citizens Thanks to Benton, Pascoe,” dated September 16, 1968, written by the civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Wagner. Intrigued I read the faded text:

“We lost…In my time, I have had the pleasure of knowing three great men. One is the late Martin Luther King Jr. who had a dream that all men, black and white, Jew and Gentile, would gather under the tree of understanding together as one. Your father and husband was and is a great man…For I would much rather be part of a losing cause destined to win than a winning cause destined to lose.”

Fifty years after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, we live in an American landscape purported by many as a post-racial domain—a colorblind world where happiness and tolerance rule, where cries of ‘racism is dead’ echo through our tree-lined streets and over our manicured lawns. While it is true that we’ve made gargantuan strides, the struggle is far from over. It is not my place to wax poetic about what can be done, but will say that we must all stand together, hold on and keep our eyes on the prize.

Ed, a glimmer in his eye, nods his silent assent.