WASHINGTON -- On March 21, Georgia GOP Senate candidate David Perdue spoke with some GOP students at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In an effort to connect with the young voters at the historically black college, Perdue said his father played a key role in desegregating the Houston County schools in Georgia.
"Segregation was real ... My dad was a school superintendent, and actually integrated I think the first -- if not the first or second -- county school system in Georgia, and he did it before they had to. He did it right after he got elected, and he did it because it was the right thing to do. So in my lifetime, I've seen that happen," Perdue said. The audio was shared with The Huffington Post by a Democratic source. (Listen to the comments above.)
But Perdue exaggerated his father's role. It is true that David Perdue Sr. oversaw desegregation as superintendent of the Houston County School System in central Georgia from 1961 to 1980. But the school board, like many others in the South, put together a "freedom of choice" plan in the mid-1960s that essentially was "desegregation light" -- allowing the option of integration but not forcing it. The NAACP challenged the plan as inadequate, and full desegregation in Perdue's schools came only after a court order.
The first shock to the system came in 1954, when the Supreme Court ordered schools to desegregate in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. The ruling contained no time frame for schools to comply, but a year later, the court said desegregation efforts had to move forward "with all deliberate speed."
According to an article in the Macon Telegraph on Nov. 10, 2009, the Houston County School System started to put together its integration plan shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, while Perdue was superintendent.
"The initial plan, which allowed students to apply to schools of their choice regardless of their status as a formerly all-white or all-black school, would integrate high school seniors during the second semester of the 1964-65 year and would continue integrating roughly at the rate of one grade per year, becoming fully integrated during the 1972-73 school year," wrote the Telegraph.
These "freedom of choice" plans were highly controversial. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in 2007 that while in theory they sounded great, "many districts remained partially or completely segregated." A March 3, 1970, article in the Washington Afro-American called these plans "desegregation dodges."
Houston County's plan didn't sit well with local NAACP President Oscar Thomie Jr., who saw a desegregation plan stretching over 10 years as violating the spirit of "all deliberate speed." He sued the Houston County Board of Education. The county then sped up its plan and was, according to a public notice by Perdue, "desegregated since the beginning of the 1967-1968 school year."
U.S. District Judge William Bootle ruled in favor of Houston County on Aug. 12, 1969, saying it was "acting in good faith" in desegregating the schools. But in early 1970, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit disagreed and sent the case back to the lower court. Bootle eventually ordered Houston County to fully desegregate by Feb. 25, 1970, according to the Macon Telegraph.
Perdue complied, calling it "one of the smoothest days we have had." About 3,500 students and 130 teachers were transferred in the integration effort. Perdue is honored in the local hall of fame for, in part, leading "the county’s schools smoothly through integration."
"We don't know what his true intentions were when he was speaking to the young men at Morehouse, but our position is that the courts did order Houston County to desegregate," said NAACP Assistant General Counsel Khyla D. Craine. "The plan that they had in place, which was called a 'freedom of choice' plan, did not satisfy what the Supreme Court had ruled and the 5th Circuit had ruled about desegregating. So he had to do a little bit more than what the county had initially done."
Perdue campaign spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said the candidate's comments were meant to reflect the fact that his father took steps to desegregate the schools before many other systems in Georgia did, even if the result wasn't perfect.
"As the son of two public school teachers, David was talking admiringly about his father who was a well-respected educational leader in the community," she said. "As superintendent of Houston County School System for nearly 20 years, David's father led the county's schools smoothly through integration. Although the initial plan may not have progressed as quickly as some would have liked, given the political realities of the time, Houston County was leading the way."
In other appearances, Perdue has talked about his father's time at the Houston County schools and the burden of federal intervention. In a March 24 interview with conservative radio host Erick Erickson, Perdue said he remembered his dad "having to fight tooth and nail against overbearing, overreaching control from the federal government."
In a May 13 interview with the Macon Telegraph, Perdue said, "My mother and father were teachers. And we were in a federally impacted area in Warner Robins because of Robins Air Force Base. A lot of that money came from Washington and bypassed the state. And with that came the regulations and the oversight. And I watched the fight go on ... about which social studies book to use, which math books to use, and so forth. And my mom fought that, you know, the whole time. She believed the best decisions were made between the parent, the teacher, the local administration and the school board. And quite frankly, that's where I ended up."
Perdue's comments about his father echo those made by Mitt Romney while running for president in the 2008 cycle. In December 2007, Romney said, "I saw my father march with Martin Luther King."
George Romney, however, never marched with the civil rights leader. He did appear to participate in civil rights events, but he was not with King.
Perdue is the former CEO of corporations such as Dollar General, Reebok and Pillowtex. He is facing Democrat Michelle Nunn for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). HuffPost Pollster, which averages publicly available polling, shows a tight race in which Perdue has a slight lead.
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