A look at Hillary Clinton’s efforts that summer in Dolan, Ala., reveals a summer job that was both out of character for the bookish law student and a moment of awakening.
DOTHAN, Ala. —
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 Clinton, then a 24-year-old law student, was working for Marian Wright Edelman, the civil-rights activist and prominent advocate for children. 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.
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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 Brown, a longtime education advocate who did work similar to Clinton’s.
She added, “We thought we were part of the civil-rights struggle, definitely.”
As issues of race and civil rights have dominated Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and as Black Lives Matter activists have demanded more from her, she has frequently talked about her work for 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 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, 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,” Clinton wrote in “Living History.” “I was assured that no black students would be enrolled.”
In 1972, 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.
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 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 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 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.”
Clinton 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 she 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, Bill Clinton was in Miami working on George McGovern’s presidential campaign when Hillary 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, Clinton most likely stayed at the Holiday Inn on Ross Clark Circle, because locally owned hotels might have been suspicious of a single woman with black acquaintances, several people who did the same work said. While 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.”
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 IRS gave the school tax-exempt status, according to former students.
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 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 this past month with Joe Madison, a black activist and radio host, Clinton described her job in Dothan as “frankly, posing as a white parent” to “elicit information.”
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 Clinton visited.
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,” Moore said of 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.
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 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, 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.
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 Schechter, described it.
Decades later, when young Black Lives Matter activists confronted 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 the 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.
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 entrance, and the admissions office that Clinton would have visited is now decorated with a kaleidoscope of flags of Ivy League schools.
In August 1972, when Hillary Clinton had completed her research into segregation academies, she joined Bill 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 Bill Clinton and beginning her 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 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.