School-integration activists look back before confronting the future.

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A group of folks gathered in a Capitol Hill living room Tuesday looked back on one of Seattle’s harder journeys.

Fifty years ago, a lawsuit initiated decades of effort to desegregate Seattle Schools. Some residents resisted the attempt, some left and some tried to make it work, including hundreds who volunteered with the Coalition for Quality Integrated Education.

Several white Seattleites, friends and acquaintances who were members of the group recently started meeting to mine their memories and preserve some of that history.

With the return of neighborhood schools and re-segregation, they want to look at where we’ve been as a step toward figuring out where we should go, because the work isn’t finished.

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Back then, they wanted more equal education and for integration to work — and they still do — but most weren’t and aren’t starry-eyed. They recognized problems with various desegregation plans, but they tried to help make them work anyway.

The plans didn’t take into account the impact of poverty on student readiness. Staff and students weren’t culturally prepared for each other. Parents weren’t as informed as they should have been. And commitment to change was spotty. That’s what they saw then, and it is too often what we see now.

On Tuesday, they met at the home of civic activist and philanthropist Kay Bullitt, a gathering place for numerous progressive causes for decades. They watched a film about Seattle’s desegregation efforts focused on 1977-1980 made by Roger Hagan.

The short film captures the chaos of constantly changing desegregation efforts — the voluntary plan adopted after the 1962 suit filed on behalf of the NAACP, the magnet programs designed to attract middle-class white families, and the mandatory plans that would eventually be knocked down as courts moved away from racial desegregation.

After the film, I asked people about their experiences.

John Dunn taught at schools in North and South Seattle. With busing, he said, “there was a lot of negativity from parents.” It trickled down to students, and teachers had to deal with that.

Dunn believes trying to integrate schools is a good idea, but we have to address poverty first.

Liz Lang’s daughter attended Leschi Elementary School for first grade in 1968. “We brought her back (to University Heights Elementary School the next year). I just wasn’t prepared. It was an idea I had, but I had no idea how it would affect my children.”

That message kept coming up in the discussion. Students and teachers weren’t prepared for cultural differences and differences in preparation for the work. Of course the reason desegregation was sought in the first place was the difference in education that children were getting in schools north and south of the Ship Canal.

Lang wanted to contribute in some way to making integration work, so she joined the coalition around 1971.

Kay Bullitt helped create the coalition in 1968. Her youngest daughters were part of the Madrona-Lowell exchange. One was in first grade and the other in the third when they went to Madrona. “It was a superb year,” she said.

Inge Strauss said one of her boys attended Madrona. She joined the coalition around 1970 and “tried to help people understand desegregation.” She said that when the district bused kids to her North End neighborhood, “a lot of the white parents didn’t like it. And lots of teachers left Eckstein.”

She had to try to make it work because, as an immigrant, she appreciated the power of education.

Carol Richman actually lived in the South End, where her family moved from Eugene, Ore., in 1961.

“We moved to Madrona despite what the real-estate agents said (which was that there were lots of black people).” Their elementary school was 87 percent black.

“I thought kids were kids,” she said, but that wasn’t exactly so. “There were differences between the poor kids and ours.”

Sometimes the students who needed the most from schools were shortchanged by the way desegregation was handled. They were bused more often and were not served by magnet programs.

All three of Richman’s children grew up to become educators, and she said they know how to educate students from different backgrounds. That’s a benefit of their experiences.

In a note she wrote before the meeting, Richman said, we need more focused efforts, “to enable kids to overcome handicaps inflicted by society and history,” and she called the education gap, “the most compelling ‘civil right’ issue of today.” It makes sense to build on history to do better for our future.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter@jerrylarge.