Diaspora

June Shagaloff Alexander, School Desegregation Leader, Dies at 93 – The New York Times

Advertisement
Supported by
She helped Thurgood Marshall prepare for his Supreme Court fight and later took on de facto school segregation across the North and West.
Send any friend a story
As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

June Shagaloff Alexander, whose work for the N.A.A.C.P. and its legal arm in the 1950s and ’60s put her at the forefront of the nationwide fight for school integration and made her a close confidante of civil rights figures like Thurgood Marshall and James Baldwin, died on March 29 at her home in Tel Aviv. She was 93.
Her son, David Alexander, confirmed the death.
Ms. Alexander (Ms. Shagaloff at the time) joined the civil rights movement as a college student, beginning as an intern with the N.A.A.C.P.’s legal department, which later became a separate entity, the Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Mr. Marshall, who ran the department and later became a Supreme Court justice, hired her in 1951, soon after she graduated, and put her to work on a project that was already consuming almost all of the department’s energies: the litany of legal challenges against segregated education that he and his team would eventually take to the Supreme Court.
As one of only two non-lawyers in the department, Ms. Alexander worked with outside experts who had been tasked with amassing the historical and psychological research to support the N.A.A.C.P.’s cases.
Under the direction of the historian John Hope Franklin, she spent months at the New York Public Library, reading through the Congressional Record to assess the legislative intent behind the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
She also collaborated with the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in their research into the psychological impacts of segregated education on Black children, including their famous experiment showing that Black children from segregated schools preferred white dolls over Black ones.
Later, Ms. Alexander went into the field, visiting segregated school districts to amass on-the-ground insights for Mr. Marshall’s legal team.
Although she was white, her dark complexion sometimes led people to assume she was Black, to the point of barring her from certain whites-only public spaces, an experience that she said shaped her early commitment to civil rights.
But this ambiguity proved to be an asset in her work. When investigating a segregated school district, she would visit a white school pretending to be a prospective white parent, then do the same at a Black school, pretending to be a prospective Black parent — a ruse that gave her a unique, unvarnished view of the district’s education inequities.
She often put herself at physical risk. She traveled to Cairo, Ill., in 1952 to help the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter integrate the city’s school system. The campaign was marked by violence — the Ku Klux Klan beat Black activists and firebombed their homes, and several, including Ms. Alexander, were arrested. Mr. Marshall immediately flew to Cairo to arrange her release.
Ms. Alexander continued her work after the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional, in its 1954 decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. She worked with white and Black families to prepare them for integration, and with local civil rights groups to test the speed and commitment of school districts to desegregation.
Her organizing played an important if often underappreciated part in Mr. Marshall’s vision for desegregation, said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president emerita of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, in an interview.
“Most people don’t know the name June Shagaloff,” Ms. Ifill said. “But she was essential to the work, and she demonstrates how powerful and important organizing was.”
A few years after the defense fund became a separate entity, in 1957, Ms. Alexander moved to the N.A.A.C.P.
There, as its first education director, she helped lead the fight in Northern cities against de facto segregation: the existence of separate Black- and white-majority schools not because of any specific law, but because of geographic and economic disparities that many white politicians claimed were naturally occurring but that often resulted from discriminatory housing and employment policies.
She was particularly active in New York City, helping to organize a series of boycotts by Black families against the city’s school system after the N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups accused it of not doing enough to integrate its schools.
Living in Greenwich Village and already familiar with leaders like Mr. Marshall and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she became close friends with Black intellectuals like Mr. Baldwin, the novelist and essayist, and his brother David.
Thanks to the Baldwin brothers, Ms. Alexander was one of a small number of civil rights figures invited to a meeting in May 1963 with Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, in a New York City apartment.
For almost three hours, Ms. Alexander watched as Mr. Kennedy, who thought the civil rights movement was moving too fast, parried, harangued and argued with the singer Harry Belafonte, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Dr. Clark and others, until Ms. Hansberry got up and left in anger, with most of the rest following behind.
Though the meeting ended in acrimony and Mr. Kennedy later ordered the F.B.I. to tap James Baldwin’s phone, many historians see the meeting as a turning point for the attorney general, who by the fall was a leading figure in the push for the Civil Rights Act.
“June was there as history was being made,” Ted Shaw, a former president of the Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in an interview. “And she helped make it.”
June Shagaloff was born on June 14, 1928, in New York City and grew up in the towns of Merrick and Baldwin on Long Island, where her father owned several pharmacies. Her parents, Samuel and Gertrude (Bellinson) Shagaloff, immigrated from Russia in 1905.
June spent her summers at nearby Jones Beach, a public facility where she sometimes faced discrimination from people who assumed she was Black.
“I grew up with two racial identities,” she said in a 2014 interview. “From September to June I was a white child, and from June to September I was a child of color, to those who didn’t know me. And I couldn’t understand, since I was the same person, how people could treat me so differently.”
She began her college career at the University of Cincinnati, where she studied piano, but moved home, and to New York University, to help care for her ailing father. At N.Y.U. she studied sociology.
She married Michael Alexander, who owned an interior design company on Long Island, in 1970. He died in 1992. Along with her son, she is survived by her stepdaughter, Priscilla Alexander, and two grandchildren.
Ms. Alexander retired from the N.A.A.C.P. in 1972 and later moved to Ashkelon, Israel, where she helped found the Ashkelon branch of Peace Now, a liberal group working to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She moved back to the United States in the 1980s, where she lived in Rockland County, N.Y., just north of New York City, and worked on the board of a child development center.
She later returned to Israel, but remained focused on America’s racial progress, or lack thereof, calling Mr. Shaw practically every week for updates and refusing to believe that the achievements of her youth meant that the country had done enough for Black citizens.
“We need discussions,” she said in 2014, “not about healing, but about change.”
Advertisement

source

What's your reaction?

Excited
0
Happy
0
In Love
0
Not Sure
0
Silly
0

You may also like

More in:Diaspora

Comments are closed.