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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Giles, September 10, 1987. Interview C-0063. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The Pearsall Plan was a boon for state politicians, putting the decision of school desegregation in the hands of parents rather than state officials

North Carolina politicians hoped to avoid massive school closings. The Pearsall Plan provided local school systems, and parents, the choice in determining the fate of public schools. Through the desegregation plan, parents gained control over their children's school assignments.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Giles, September 10, 1987. Interview C-0063. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ROBERT GILES:
Well, I'm not sure that's exactly correct. I would say I was the principal assistant attorney general who worked with Attorney General Rodman on the public school matter which, of course, involved the Pearsall Commission, or the Pearsall Committee. I believe it was called "committee." So during the early part of '56, I believe it was, things were coming to a head. Well, exactly what can we do? Attorney General Rodman had asked me to focus on that, and let him have any thoughts that I might have as to exactly what sort of total approach would seem to make sense. My recollection is that I did give him my thoughts. As I recall, I sent him a memorandum, or at least it was put down on paper, the substance of which was change the constitution and the statutes to: number one, provide that there could be no closing of any school on account of the race matter except by a vote of the people directly involved. That would be a vote of those people with respect to one school only, divide it down that far, not all the schools in the county or in an administrative unit, but focusing on one school. If it was an elementary school, then all of the people in that particular school unit that is identified for that elementary school or a high school or whatever. No decision by the State Board of Education could close the schools. No decision by a local board, either county or city board of education, but only by a vote. Then second and tied to that, a provision that a parent who was in the situation of having the child attend the school of another race could elect to withdraw the child from the public school and apply for a tuition grant in order to send the child to a private school or a non-public school. That tuition grant would be equivalent to the amount that the state was then spending per capita or per student for public school. The parent also would be entitled to get a grant from the local governing unit equivalent to the amount that the local governing unit, such as the county, was supplementing the public school. That applied to anyone of any race. It wasn't limited to whites, but anyone of any race whose child was assigned to a public school attended by children of another race could get that. That was the basic scheme or approach that I suggested that be considered. I recall very distinctly how I arrived at that. I thought in terms of what had been for the past several years—and this was back in 1955, '56—what had been one of the most volatile and emotional issues in which people in the state had been called on to vote. It seemed to me that the matter of local option on alcoholic beverages—whether you would have sales of alcoholic beverages in that locality, the county, or other unit—the fact that the legislature had for years provided for local option on that and provided for the vote. While there were hotly contested elections from time to time, the point was it worked. People were able to get those decisions made, whether it was to permit the sale of alcoholic beverages or not, and live with it. There was no uniform pattern that somebody was trying to apply throughout the state. Well, I simply thought in terms of that as here is an extremely serious and volatile issue as a matter of government and trying to work out reasonable and workable government. This might fit here. So I suggested that.
JAMES JENKINS:
And that essentially was what was adopted?
ROBERT GILES:
That is what eventually came to be drafted both as constitution and statutes and was adopted by the 1956 special session of the General Assembly.
JAMES JENKINS:
That had the added psychological, or whatever you want to call it, advantage of taking legislators off the hook by giving people a chance to vote and decide it for themselves. Of course, this was a very sensitive thing as far as they were concerned, when they had to run for reelection, don't you think so?
ROBERT GILES:
That is true. I think what was recognized by the Pearsall Committee, Attorney General Rodman, Governor Hodges, and all of those, was that if that sort of decision has to be made by elected officials, at whatever level, they would be under tremendous pressure. There would be extreme difficulty for those elected officials to make other than what you might call the most extreme decision, such as, well, close the schools. If only a small minority—as a matter of fact, you never take a census on this sort of thing—but what could be, in fact, a minority of the people in the area, would really be insisting on this. Yet by the nature of the issue that vociferous minority could prevail. Just pick up and everybody gets swept on by the tide. So I think that early on, early in '56, the basic policy decision began to be firm in the minds of the state officials working on the matter of closing schools or not, and they recognized then that some schools may well have to be closed. That the people involved would insist on it. But if that's done, it should be done by a vote of those directly involved. I think it was a very key, fundamental decision.
JAMES JENKINS:
And of course, no schools were closed.
ROBERT GILES:
As a matter of fact, no such election was ever called, no petition for such election. No election was held, and no school was ever closed under that legislation.