The Crusader Newspaper Group

How Hillary Clinton went undercover to examine race in education

Hillary Clinton and Marian Wright Edelman

On a humid summer day in 1972, Hillary Rodham walked into this town’s new private academy, a couple of cinder-block classrooms erected hurriedly amid fields of farmland, and pretended to be someone else.

Playing down her flat Chicago accent, she told the school’s guidance counselor that her husband had just taken a job in Dothan, that they were a churchgoing family and that they were looking for a school for their son.

The future Mrs. Clinton, then a 24-year-old law student, was working for Marian Wright Edelman, the civil rights activist and prominent advocate for children. Mrs. Edelman had sent her to Alabama to help prove that the Nixon administration was not enforcing the legal ban on granting tax-exempt status to so-called segregation academies, the estimated 200 private academies that sprang up in the South to cater to white families after a 1969 Supreme Court decision forced public schools to integrate.

Her mission was simple: Establish whether the Dothan school was discriminating based on race.

“It was dangerous, being outsiders in these rural areas, talking about segregation academies,” said Cynthia G. Brown, a longtime education advocate who did work similar to Mrs. Clinton’s.

She added, “We thought we were part of the civil rights struggle, definitely.”

As issues of race and civil rights have become central to Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and as Black Lives Matter activists have demanded more from her, she has frequently talked about her work for Mrs. Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, making her advocacy for children the backbone of the biographical story she tells voters. But her experience going undercover in Dothan is a little-known aspect of that work, one she devoted just under 300 words to in her 562-page memoir, “Living History.”

A look at Mrs. Clinton’s efforts that summer, through archives and interviews with more than 50 local officials, civil rights activists and people who knew her, reveals a summer job that was both out of character for the bookish law student and a moment of awakening.

Until her trip to Alabama, she had been relatively sheltered, her activism mostly confined to Ivy League debates and campus turmoil. Like many white activists from the North who traveled south to help on civil rights issues, Mrs. Clinton confronted a different world in Dothan, separate and unequal, and a sting of injustice she had previously only read about.

“I went through my role-playing, asking questions about the curriculum and makeup of the student body,” Mrs. Clinton wrote in “Living History.” “I was assured that no black students would be enrolled.”

Segregation Persists

In 1972, Mrs. Edelman’s Washington Research Project, which later became the Children’s Defense Fund, and other groups published a seminal report, “It’s Not Over in the South: School Desegregation in 43 Southern Cities 18 Years After Brown.” That year, an estimated 535,000 students attended private schools in the South, compared with 25,000 in 1966.

Mrs. Clinton was one of a handful of young researchers and interns who worked in Washington reviewing documents, looking into the schools that had been granted tax exemptions, and coordinating with activists and lawyers in the South who had been at the forefront of integration efforts.

After Mrs. Clinton spent several weeks studying the issue and establishing relationships in Atlanta and Alabama, she and other researchers were sent to different parts of the South to gather data and report firsthand on the private schools. They delivered their findings to Mrs. Edelman’s and other advocacy groups that were trying to pressure the Nixon administration.

Civil rights lawyers had had success in sending “testers” to investigate whether white and black couples received equal treatment in home rentals and purchases, as required by the Fair Housing Act, but going undercover to test private schools was less common and carried more risks.

“At the time, people were sort of suspicious about outsiders,” said Charles C. Bolton, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who has done extensive research on education in the South. “But they were also quick to make assumptions that all white people shared their views.”

Mrs. Clinton declined requests for an interview about her efforts to investigate segregation academies. But historical documents, descriptions of her work from friends and from others engaged in the issue, and Mrs. Clinton’s writings and public comments suggest that her trip to Dothan took her far out of her comfort zone.

She had graduated from Wellesley in 1969, and in the spring of 1971, at Yale Law School, had met Bill Clinton. That summer, the couple shared a small apartment not far from the University of California, Berkeley, while Mrs. Clinton worked at a law firm in Oakland, mostly writing legal briefs in a child custody case, according to “Living History.” They returned to Yale and lived together in a ground-floor apartment in New Haven that cost $75 a month.

In summer 1972, Mr. Clinton was in Miami working on George McGovern’s presidential campaign when Mrs. Clinton traveled from Washington to Atlanta to meet with civil rights lawyers and activists, then rented a car and drove the nearly four hours to Dothan.

“Hillary was not a derring-do type of person. It wasn’t her normal mode,” said Taylor Branch, the civil rights activist and author, who was a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton at the time. “But,” he added, “you do these things when you’re young, and this was the era when young people did more of that than normal.”

In Dothan, Mrs. Clinton most likely stayed at the Holiday Inn on Ross Clark Circle, since locally owned hotels might have been suspicious of a single woman with black acquaintances, several people who did the same work said. While Mrs. Clinton favored corduroy bell-bottoms for casual wear, the dress code for the investigative work called for conservative blouses and skirts, her colleagues said.

She drove over the railroad tracks near downtown, east of Park Avenue, to the black part of town. There, she met local contacts who told her over a lunch of sweetened ice tea and burgers “that many of the school districts in the area were draining local public schools of books and equipment to send to the so-called academies, which they viewed as the alternatives for white students,” she wrote in “Living History.”

Years later, Mrs. Clinton does not say she ever felt afraid, but a white woman traveling alone in the South would have been “looking over her shoulder,” said Marlene Provizer, who did similar research into segregation academies in Mississippi and Georgia in the same era.

“There weren’t many folks doing this work,” she said. “I was very conscious of being ‘the other.’ ”

Blending In

With a nuclear plant under construction on the nearby Chattahoochee River, along with the Army base at Fort Rucker, outsiders were moving to Dothan, a city of 37,000 then, named after Genesis 37:17: “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’ ”

“In a smaller town or had she gone to Mississippi, she wouldn’t have gotten away with it,” said Steve Suitts, the founding executive director of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union, who has worked on the issue of private academies since the late 1960s. “People would have asked around about who she was and why she was down there and who her husband was and where they went to church.”

The local real estate agents, the bankers, the Baptist pastors and even the elected officials encouraged new families — if they were white and Christian — to consider Houston Academy, the new private academy just outside town that was able to operate because the I.R.S. granted the school tax-exempt status, according to several former students.

Mrs. Clinton does not name the school in her book, but according to public records and tax filings, Houston Academy was the only private school founded in Dothan at the time that had requested and received a tax exemption. People who worked on the issue in Alabama then said the school would have been Houston Academy.

The summer Mrs. Clinton was in Dothan, the pages of the local paper, The Dothan Eagle, erupted with editorials and angry letters from readers concerned about the effects of school integration. “The arbitrary, compulsory integration of black and white children in the classrooms in massive numbers simply does not work,” read an editorial titled “School Integration Becomes Intolerable.”

In an interview last month with Joe Madison, a black activist and radio host, Mrs. Clinton described her job in Dothan as “frankly, posing as a white parent” to “elicit information.”

In order to receive a tax exemption, Houston Academy was required to place an ad in The Eagle publicizing its “open enrollment” policy. School officials told The Birmingham News in 1970, “No black students have been accepted because no black students applied.”

Bob Moore, the original headmaster at Houston Academy, described the school in a recent interview as “just three slabs of concrete and a couple side walls” when Mrs. Clinton visited.

Mr. Moore and his wife, Dollie, who edited the school’s yearbook, The Cavalier, still live in their ranch-style home near Houston Academy, now an elite college preparatory school. “I’m not saying it didn’t happen,” Mr. Moore said of Mrs. Clinton’s account. “But I am saying I know nothing about it.”

In 1972, attending Houston Academy cost less than $750 a year, or less than $4,300 in today’s dollars. The town’s directories listed the academy as a public school because it was not affiliated with a church.

Marty Olliff, an associate professor of history and director of the Wiregrass Archives at Troy University’s Dothan campus, said he did not doubt Mrs. Clinton’s story but suggested that the exchange at the school would have been less direct than what she has described in her book and on the campaign trail.

What would have kept black people out “would have been the tuition,” Dr. Olliff said. “Not ‘you’re black, you can’t come in.’ ”

D. Taylor Flowers, the chairman of the board of Houston Academy, whose father was a founding board member, was in the ninth grade at the school (which locals call “H.A.,” jokingly saying it stands for “holy Anglo”) when Mrs. Clinton visited. “I’ve heard the story, and I don’t think Hillary Clinton made it up,” he said over lunch in Dothan.

The school was founded to prepare students for college, not as a segregation academy, Mr. Flowers said. But, he added, “I would be disingenuous if I said integration didn’t have anything to do with” parents’ enrolling their children in Houston Academy. “Integration was a huge social change for us.”

Over in a Minute

Mrs. Clinton spent part of that summer working on the issue of segregation academies, and only a couple of days in Dothan. But in many ways, her work on segregation academies best encapsulated her “commitment to pragmatism” in the struggle for equal rights, as her college adviser at Wellesley, Alan H. Schechter, described it.

Decades later, when young Black Lives Matter activists confronted Mrs. Clinton backstage at a New Hampshire campaign event on what she would do about racial injustice, she articulated the approach she had adopted that summer in Alabama.

“I don’t believe you change hearts,” she told them. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

But if Mrs. Clinton’s experience in Dothan opened her eyes to discrimination, it also provided an early education in the obstacles inherent in trying to enact social change through fact-finding and policy papers.

Ms. Brown, the education advocate who also investigated segregation academies, estimated that maybe one or two of these private schools had lost their tax-exempt status, despite years of work and multiple reports filed to the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare. “Nixon was president then, and he wasn’t going to do anything about it,” she said.

Houston Academy maintains its tax-exempt status. Today, its once bare-bones campus has a country-club feel. White columns adorn the front entrance, and the admissions office that Mrs. Clinton would have visited is now decorated with a kaleidoscope of flags of Ivy League schools.

On a recent afternoon, students in uniforms of khaki shorts and blue polo shirts ate lunch in a maze of manicured courtyards with waterfalls. The farmland that once surrounded the school is now an upper-middle-class subdivision.

In 2013, eight of Houston Academy’s 527 students were black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The current headmaster, Scott Phillipps, said that nearly 10 percent of the students were minorities, including blacks, Indians, Latinos and Asians, and that the school, which costs around $10,000 a year, offered scholarships and tried to lure students and teachers of diverse backgrounds.

“If you want to narrowly define diversity in terms of African-Americans, that’s kind of Old South,” Dr. Phillipps said. “We’re trying to be global.”

In August 1972, when Mrs. Clinton had completed her research into segregation academies, she joined Mr. Clinton in Austin to help register voters in South Texas. She then returned to New Haven to complete her law degree, and went on to other projects for the Children’s Defense Fund before moving to Arkansas, marrying Mr. Clinton and beginning her legal and political career.

The proliferation of private schools in the South “was a gigantic event, and it blew the minds of civil rights folks and took the wind out of their sails,” said Douglas A. Blackmon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center who is working on a documentary about the effects of segregation academies.

“But in a minute, it was over,” he said of the effort to combat such schools. “And the well-intentioned work Hillary described was no match for the absolute insistence of millions of Southern whites that their kids never go to school with black kids.”


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