Their School Is Closed, but Some Louisiana Parents Would Rather Fight Busing Than Switch
The problems of busing have spread to every part of the United States, and the story of how they came to Forest Hill would be unremarkable except that its school, with 311 children (26 of them black), had become the rural town's major cultural institution. Though it has been integrated since 1971, U.S. District Court Judge Nauman S. Scott ruled in July that the school did not have enough black students and ordered it closed so that the white students could be used to achieve racial balance nine miles east in Lecompte. For some of the children in the Forest Hill district (pop. 1,500), that meant an hour-long bus ride.
The reaction was instantaneous. "When I heard about us losing our school I was devastated," recalls Martha Ladner, 40, a mother of two sons. "I had given a lot of blood, sweat and tears as a volunteer to that school, and my emotional involvement is deep. Now 14 families have moved away. They see the town dying." Unwilling to give up so easily, because they fear that Forest Hill will wither if it loses the centerpiece of the community, Ladner and 70 other parents began raising money to run the school by themselves. They collected secondhand books and equipment and recruited a staff of volunteer teachers. Then, a week after classes began in September, Judge Scott sent in U.S. marshals to shut the school again and threatened any parent who entered the building with fines up to $300.
Dismayed but still not ready to quit, the rebels began holding classes in three local churches. They say they intend to keep them going as long as they have to. Though private schooling has often been used in the South as a device to avoid integration, and though most of the town's black students have gone along with the move to Lecompte, the Forest Hill parents insist there is no racial motive behind their protest. "It's not a black and white issue, no matter what they say," says Mary Miles, 41, a black parent. "I've sent three children through our school here, and I feel good about it. This is home. Everybody knows me and my kids, and I know them. The lawyers and the judges, they want to close a school just because the numbers somewhere aren't right. But before I send my child to that other school, I'll go to jail."
Judge Scott's position is that he is simply observing the Supreme Court's guidelines governing racial imbalance. Yet even proponents of court-ordered busing admit that integrating isolated rural school districts is a difficult problem, with painful consequences for the towns involved. In Forest Hill most parents who are not sending their children to the churches (where 170 students in kindergarten through eighth grade are enrolled) have entered them in other private schools. Some 25 pupils are making the daily trip to Lecompte.
The unofficial leader of the dissident parents is Clyde Holloway, 36, an airline travel salesman who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for Congress this fall. His wife, Cathie, is working as a part-time teacher, and Holloway helps organize gumbo suppers, raffles and car washes that have been the makeshift school system's main source of income. He urges congressional action against court-ordered busing. Last month Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell declined to review the case, but Forest Hill plans to appeal its case to the entire Court. Meanwhile, the townsfolk take heart in a song being played on Louisiana radio stations: "They call themselves Holloway's heroes, just a bunch of crazy fools/But now Holloway's heroes are great American heroes/For takin' and savin' a little country school."