Oscar Robertson should have been on top of the world. He had just led Indianapolis Crispus Attucks to the 1955 Indiana high school basketball championship, the highest achievement imaginable in the basketball-crazed state. The city had enthusiastically supported the all-Black team.
But instead of the traditional champions parade through downtown Indianapolis, the team and its fans were routed to a park in a Black neighborhood for a celebration. Robertson, insulted by the slight, left early for his father’s house.
“Dad,” he said, “they just don’t want us.”
The anecdote, from Robertson’s autobiography, concludes Richard B. Pierce’s “Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970.” Published in 2005 by Indiana University Press, the book offers plentiful evidence that Robertson was right.
Its thesis is that Black people took a different path in Indianapolis than other Northern cities in seeking racial progress in education, housing and jobs. They largely rejected demonstrations and vocal advocacy for the “polite” tactics of coalition-building, petitions, lobbying and litigation. Thwarted by the city’s white power structure, Black citizens “met with interminable delays and ineffectual remedies,” according to Pierce, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.
In education, Crispus Attucks High School was Exhibit A. Opened in 1927, it didn’t admit its first white students until 1967 – 18 years after the Indiana legislature outlawed racial segregation in schools.
“Indianapolis fought school desegregation with a ferocity rarely matched by any other northern city,” Pierce writes.
In the early 1900s the city’s elementary schools may have been segregated by neighborhood, but Black students attended high school with white students. That changed in the 1920s, a time of increasing racism and nativism nationally and the dominance of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. The school board voted to open Attucks as a separate high school for Black students. African American leaders pushed for integrated schools, but school boards resisted time after time.
There was an opening for integration in 1946, when a fire destroyed a Black elementary school. The students could have been moved to three nearby white schools, where there was room and principals welcomed them. Instead, they were sent to a Black school 10 miles away, far from their homes.
Around the same time, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund were in regular contact with Indianapolis Black leaders while looking for cases to challenge the constitutionality of segregated schools. But local leaders opted instead to lobby state government, where Democrats had gained new influence. In 1949, the legislature voted to outlaw segregation in public schools.
But as the South’s response to Brown v. Board of Education made clear a few years later, outlawing segregation wouldn’t make it go away. Indianapolis school officials first delayed, then phased in integration. School assignments may not have been based on race, but gerrymandered attendance districts and a policy of “neighborhood schools” kept Black and white students apart.
Pierce summarizes what happened after the U.S. Justice Department finally sued Indianapolis Public Schools to force integration in the 1960s. In legal actions that dragged on for years, U.S. District Judge S. Hugh Dillin ruled the city had deliberately maintained segregated schools and ordered them to integrate. Black students were bused to mostly white township and suburban Marion County schools.
Also key event in the history is the creation of Unigov, the 1970 merger of Indianapolis and Marion County governments. Birthed behind closed doors by white business and civic leaders, Unigov effectively checked the voting power of African Americans. It consolidated civil government but left schools untouched, with the result that Indianapolis today has 11 school districts.
It’s odd to think that 50 years have passed since Unigov was adopted, more time than elapsed between the Klan years and Unigov. And times have changed. Today, only three Marion County school districts are majority white. Black, Hispanic and Asian students make up a majority in the other eight.
A history of the political economy of race in Indianapolis from 1970 to 2020 would also tell an important story. Regarding schools, it would need to address white flight to the surrounding counties, middle-class abandonment of public schools and the complex racial politics of school choice policies.
“Polite Protest,” meanwhile, is essential reading for understanding Indianapolis. It’s a reminder that progress doesn’t just happen but that it takes protest, polite or otherwise, to achieve any kind of justice.