by Will Stancil
Judge William Pryor is likely not accustomed to being praised by civil-rights advocates. The judge is not a liberal lion. A Bush appointee currently sitting on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which serves much of the deep South, Judge Pryor’s writings have been critical of gay rights and abortion protections. His conservative bona fides have, reputedly, helped earn him a spot on President Trump’s shortlist for Supreme Court nominations.
But earlier this month, as part of a twisting, turning school-desegregation saga in Alabama’s Jefferson County, Judge Pryor struck a strange blow on behalf of integrated schools. In an appellate decision, Stout v. Jefferson County Bd. of Education he forbade a heavily white city from breaking away from a diverse district and running its own separate school system.
What made this moment even stranger was that Pryor’s decision overturned the ruling of an Obama-appointed judge who had demonstrated great concern over school segregation. Unexpectedly, that judge had found herself at odds with many of the nation’s most vocal advocates of integrated education.
While civil-rights advocates celebrated Pryor’s move, the news out of Jefferson County isn’t all good. The recent decision raises important questions about the long-term fate of school desegregation—in Jefferson County, but everywhere else, too. America’s strongest legal tools for integration are aging into their sixth decade. At its core, the Jefferson County case is about whether they’ll survive any longer.
The litigation in Jefferson County has lasted longer than most of the county’s residents have been alive. First filed by black plaintiffs in 1965, the case sought to desegregate the countywide school district, which serves suburban Birmingham and is today the state’s second-largest K-12 system. The court ordered the district to integrate, and has been supervising that process ever since.***