James Anderson, an Illinois professor of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, sat nervously in a courtroom in St. Louis in 1983. They would be calling his name to the witness stand any moment.
A woman named Minnie Liddell had filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education of the City of St. Louis for violating the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, which guarantees the right to quality education for all African-American children. The law firm representing Liddell put a call out for an expert, a historian to lay the landscape. A colleague suggested Anderson volunteer.
At first, Anderson felt confident. The history of African-American education was his research area. But before he took the witness stand, the judge wanted to make specific guidelines clear.
“Look, I don’t want you to play with ideas,” Anderson remembered him saying. “I don’t want you to be tentative. I don’t want you to speculate. I want you to say exactly what you know and what you can prove.”
Anderson, then a young professor, loved to play with ideas – to speculate, to infer. Those were the methods embraced by academia. But the judge wasn’t interested in that presentation. Anderson tried to keep this in mind.
To lay the framework for the case, Anderson would testify first.
Right before Anderson was scheduled to testify, the judge paused. The court master requested one more opportunity to reach a settlement. The two parties and their lawyers filed into a side room, and a few minutes later they emerged with a settlement. Anderson was off the hook.
As he drove back to Illinois, he was relieved, and he assumed he was done with giving legal testimony. He was wrong. Over the course of his career, he would testify in many court cases, and it would set the stage for a lifetime of translating academic work for the public. It was never something he was seeking. And, initially, it wasn’t something that he wanted.
After growing up in small-town Eutaw, Alabama, Anderson majored in sociology at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa. In his senior year, he began thinking about graduate school, and his professor suggested the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He ended up coming to Illinois to get a master’s in secondary education, with a desire to be a high school social studies teacher.
After studying at Illinois for a year, Anderson was placed in a student teaching assignment at Chicago’s Marshall High School. At the end of the student teaching year, the students would finish their degree and be offered a full-time teaching position.
But in December, the school board terminated the program. Anderson returned to campus, unsure what he would do next. He decided he would take classes like any other semester, but this time he would choose only the classes that looked the most interesting.
So, he meandered the aisles in the Illini Union Bookstore. He only looked at the books, not paying attention to the course number, and he stopped when he saw something he wanted to read.
One set of books looked particularly interesting – a course about the history of education taught by professor David Tyack – and he signed up. It was a way to pass the time until he completed his degree and found a teaching job.
He was mesmerized reading about the education of African-Americans in Southern states – a subject that he had lived through, but never considered studying.
“I think maybe I took for granted growing up in the South,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t think that your own environment, your own context, is something that you ought to study.”
At the end of the course, Tyack assigned each student a term paper. He had individual meetings with each student, and Anderson came prepared with his idea.
“I’d like to know why the system of public education in the South failed African-Americans,” he told his professor and mentor.
“Well, why don’t you try to answer that question?” Tyack said.
So Anderson started investigating. He spent long hours in the library, digesting reports on various states and governments and organizations. He found information about schools in Alabama through the years. He became interested in the life and work of Booker T. Washington. And though the Illinois library provided loads of information, he still wanted more.
One day, a helpful Illinois librarian joked, “Well, they do have the Booker T. Washington papers in the Library of Congress.”
When he got home, Anderson called his brother -- a Washington, D.C., resident -- to announce his visit. When he arrived, he walked to the manuscript collection.
“I’m here to read the Booker T. Washington papers,” he said.
The archivist escorted him to a room. It was massive, with millions of items – newspaper clippings, correspondence and records.
Anderson spent a few days rummaging through the materials. He found a few things that were useful for his term paper, but he was unable to really answer his question. He had barely scratched the surface, and he was far from done inquiring.
He set out in search of answers by enrolling in the history Ph.D. program at Illinois. Tyack became his mentor, and they developed a close friendship.
At the end of Anderson’s first year in the program, Tyack announced he was going to Stanford University. So, Anderson applied and was accepted to go with him. But something gave him pause.
“Something told me that Illinois was the best place for me,” he said. “I just felt that Illinois was going to be a better place for me, and in the end I decided to stay.”
He got to work, and his passion for history only grew. He had so many questions to answer. And it seemed that when he got close to answering one question, a few more would present themselves. While he was lost looking for answers to his questions, his adviser told him about a professorship at Indiana.
He interviewed to appease his mentors. Then he got a call. Indiana was offering him the job, and he couldn’t refuse the offer. He wasn’t ready to leave, but he decided to go.
When he arrived on campus at Indiana, several people thought he was on the basketball team, so he grew a beard to look older. He quickly adjusted and developed a passion for teaching. He assumed he would be at Indiana forever.
Three years later, he got a call from one of his old advisers at Illinois.
“The college has given us a position in the history of education,” the adviser said. “We know you probably want to stay at Indiana, but we want to demonstrate to the college that we have a pool of highly qualified applicants in this area, so we’d like to include your name as well.”
Anderson was happy to help out, so he agreed to apply. It was the least he could do for his former colleagues.
But when he arrived for the interview, it was clear they were serious. They made him a generous offer, complete with his own office. He told them he would think about it.
Back at Indiana, he asked the department chair for honest advice. They talked through the pros and cons.
Then his department chair paused and said, “But … there’s no place like Illinois in your field.”
Anderson decided to return to his alma mater, and he never left. At Illinois, he developed a rhythm of teaching courses and continuing to dig into questions. Eventually, a colleague told him that he would need to publish to get tenure. So, he began to be more mindful of sharing his work. Mostly, he was consumed by his own curiosity.
As his published writings started to flow out, he received positive reactions. He was surprised others seemed to find the information useful. He was asked to make appearances – to speak, to attend scholarly conferences, to participate in panel discussions. He nearly served as an expert witness in the St. Louis case. He wrote books. He earned tenure. He won awards.
About a year after the St. Louis case, he received a call from a lawyer who heard about his participation as a historical expert witness. He asked him to lend his expertise to a trial in Kansas City, Missouri, and he agreed.
He assumed it would be a settlement again. But this time was different.
The case was similar, in that it was an individual suing about desegregation in a school district. But this time, there were 18 defendants (the Kansas City school district plus 17 surrounding suburban school districts). After a heated debate among the attorneys, it was decided that Anderson would take the stand and be subject to 18 sets of cross-examinations. It was exhausting.
In the end, it was determined that Kansas City was liable for discrimination, and the court ruled the schools would need to make a number of changes to ensure a proper education for all children.
He was asked to act as an expert in other cases: Knight v. State of Alabama, Ayers v. Mississippi, Gratz v. Bollinger, Grutter v. Bollinger.
Each time was stressful. In some, he was cross-examined. Though his training begged for translating assumptions, suggesting ideas, making inferences and playing with ideas, he tried to do the job he was asked. In other cases, he was deposed by lawyers. They asked what materials he was going to use and tried to set parameters for his testimony.
Anderson was blown away – he never imagined his work could have such an impact. He was merely trying to answer the questions at hand.
“All of a sudden, I realized that history was connected to public policy questions in ways I never considered,” he said. “These different roles took me into different venues, and I began to realize more fully the possibilities of what I was doing.”
One memory from the Knight v. State of Alabama is especially vivid for Anderson. The case took place in Birmingham, about 100 miles from where Anderson grew up. On the first day of the testimony, he noticed two elderly African-American women sitting alone in the back of the courtroom. On the second day, he noticed that the courtroom was filled. Later, he learned that the two ladies had coordinated busing in students from a local university. They thought it was important that they knew their own history.
“It’s one of those moments that makes you feel good about the work that you do,” he said.