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Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community That Ended the Era of School Desegregation

0177Examines why school desegregation, despite its success in closing the achievement gap, was never embraced wholeheartedly in the black community as a remedy for racial inequality

In 2007, a court case originally filed in Louisville, Kentucky, was argued before the Supreme Court and officially ended the era of school desegregation, changing how schools across America handle race and undermining the most important civil rights cases of the last century. This was not the first federal lawsuit that challenged school desegregation, but it was the first-and only-brought by African Americans.

In this unique in-depth examination of the Louisville case, journalist Sarah Garland returns to her hometown to understand why black families in the most racially integrated school system in America led the charge against desegregation. Weaving together the voices of parents, students, and teachers who fought for and against desegregation, Garland's eye-opening narrative upends assumptions about the history of busing and its aftermath.

Desegregation corresponded with unprecedented gains in black achievement and economic progress, but in Louisville, those gains often came at a cost: traditionally black schools that had been bastions of community identity and pride faced closure; hundreds of black teachers lost their jobs; parents were helpless as their children's futures were dictated by racial quotas. In illuminating the often overlooked human stories behind this fraught legal struggle, Garland reveals the difficult compromises forced on the black community in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. 

Divided We Fail is a nuanced and gripping account of one community's struggle that has important lessons for the next generation of education reformers. By taking a close look at where desegregation went wrong, Garland uncovers problems with a new set of education ideas, including school choice, charter schools, and test-based accountability systems. But she also reminds us not to forget desegregation's many successes as we look for ways to close the achievement gap for minority students. 

About the author

Garlandheadshot1Sarah Garland is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, American Prospect, New York Sun, Newsweek, Washington Monthly, Newsday, New York, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She was a 2009 recipient of the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Garland now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter at @s_garl.


Watch Sarah Garland on The Melissa Harris-Perry Show (MSNBC) as part of a panel on recent school closings.

Listen to Garland on Louisville, Kentucky's NPR station, WFPL.


Kirkus: “A useful journalistic examination of a troubling societal phenomenon.”

Publishers Weekly: “…a nuanced and thoroughly researched look at the complicated history of school desegregation in the United States…Garland is unafraid to grapple with hard truths and intimate portraits of the families behind the statistics.”

Booklist: “a compelling look at the complexities of race and class in the continued struggle for racial parity and high-quality education.”

Seattle Times

Journalist Sarah Garland grew up in Louisville. Day after day, she left her mostly Caucasian suburban neighborhood on a school bus taking her to a mostly African-American neighborhood, where she became a student in a racial minority. Her experience long ago played a role in her decision to write “Divided We Fail,” which covers the case that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So did the experience of Garland’s grandmother, an Oklahoma teacher who volunteered to join the initial group of Caucasian educators transferred to an all African-American school, where she remained until retirement. Garland relates how her own mother became a social worker splitting time between a mostly African-American school and a mostly Caucasian school in Louisville. Garland’s mother “witnessed firsthand the upheaval and violence that busing wrought in its early years.”

Read an excerpt from Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation