Schools Are Reopened in Selma Amid Continuing Racial Tension
Selma, Ala.--Dozens of state troopers and National Guardsmen flanked the doorways of this city's schools last week as students returned to classes amid fears that a civil-disobedience campaign demanding equal educational opportunities for blacks would escalate into violence.
But unlike events of 25 years ago that made this town the symbol of a previous generation's civil-rights struggles, few incidents of violence have been linked to the renewed racial strife that has once again drawn the national spotlight here.
Although black students were persuaded to end voluntarily their occupation of Selma High School on Feb. 12, many protesters continued to occupy city hall, hold daily marches, boycott white-owned businesses, and plan a variety of other "direct action" strategies.
Some 164 students were officially withdrawn from the school system last week by their parents, presumably due to fears that the confrontations would become violent.
Ninety-one students who were disciplined on Feb. 14 for staging a "peaceful protest" in the cafeteria of Selma High School will be reassigned to an alternative school, according to Norward Roussell, the district's first black superintendent, who is at the center of the controversy.
A rallying cry of the protesters has been "No contract, no school!"--a reference to the white-majority school board's decision not to renew Mr. Roussell's contract when it expires this June.
Similar moves by majority-white school boards against black superintendents have sparked protests in other districts, but this city's historic status as a symbol of the civil-rights movement has created an atmosphere in which such action takes on national significance.
In Boston last week, for example, black school-committee members reportedly chanted "Selma! Selma! Selma!" after a majority of white members voted to negotiate a buy-out of the contract of that city's first black superintendent, Laval S. Wilson. (See related story below.)
But protest leaders here said the board's decision merely ignited existing frustrations over what they consider to be "neo-segregation" in the public schools: a system of tracking, or ability grouping, that they say recreates segregated classrooms and closes the doors of educational opportunity to many black students.
"We marched for voting rights, we marched for public accommodations, but there's never been a civil-rights battle over the tracking system until now," said Rose Sanders, a local lawyer and protest leader who claims she was abused by police when she was arrested two weeks ago.
Superintendent Roussell's fate is symbolic of the larger struggle, she said.
"Only when he moved to get rid of this tracking system, did they move to get rid of him," Ms. Sanders told almost a thousand protesters during one of the largest marches through the city's neighborhoods.
White officials, however, adamantly deny the charges of racism. They said the protests were orchestrated by a handful of black leaders eager to assume the reigns of power in the city, where blacks will soon become a majority of registered voters.
"They're using [Mr. Roussell]; he's not the issue," said Kimbrough Ballard, a member of the white majority on the city council.
"This is a political power play," he added, echoing the sentiments expressed by almost all of the white townspeople interviewed. The protest leaders, they said, "want control of the schools and the city government."
But Mr. Ballard and other white officials acknowledge that the superintendent's efforts to reform the tracking system--known locally as "leveling"--cost him dearly in terms of support from white residents.
"He came in and he was the darling of the white community," said Charles Morris, another white city councilman.
"They put him into the Rotary Club--the first black ever put into the Rotary Club," he said. "Then the issue came about the leveling, and he lost a lot of white support."
Many white residents seemed surprised by the suddenness and intensity of the outbreak of racial tensions. They believed this town became a model for peaceful race relations in the South in the wake of "Bloody Sunday," the violent clash between civil-rights marchers and police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that helped clear the way for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"You know the irony of this?" one white mother asked following a rally attended by more than 200 white parents demanding action to re-open the schools. "My children are young enough, they haven't seen this before. How do you explain prejudice to a 7-year-old without letting those feelings come back?"
Leaders Allege Discrimination
Protest leaders say prejudice has been a continuing fact of life here despite the victories won in the civil-rights battles of the 1960s.
Although almost half of the city's population is black, blacks have never been in the majority on any of the city's governing boards. The student enrollment in the 6,000-student district is 70 percent black and 30 percent white, while the ratio among the teaching staff is almost exactly reversed.
"This is D-Day in terms of breaking the badges of racism that were not broken by Dr. Martin Luther King when he was here," said Yusuf Salaam, a protest leader with five children in the public schools.
In the weeks since Dec. 21, when the school board's six white members voted not to renew Mr. Roussell's contract over the opposition of five black board members, attitudes on both sides of the dispute have hardened and several attempts at compromise have been stymied.
The black board members walked out of the December meeting, and have subsequently refused to meet with their white counterparts until they rescind their decision on the superintendent's contract.
Black leaders responded to the board's action with two one-day school boycotts, the second of which included a majority of black teachers, and with an economic-boycott campaign targeted at businesses associated with white board members.
The protests accelerated last week after the white board majority informed Mr. Roussell that he was to be reassigned to other duties for the remainder of the year, and appointed F.D. Reese, the black principal of Selma High School, to the post of acting superintendent.
Board members have refused to comment on their actions, but published reports indicated that some felt the superintendent's continued presence was hampering efforts to resolve the conflict.
On Feb. 6, a fight between black and white students at Selma High forced officials to close that school as well as a middle school to prevent further incidents.
On the same day, police arrested four protesters, including Ms. Sanders, when they tried to force their way into the office of Mayor Joseph T. Smitherman, whom the protesters consider a major force behind the school board's actions.
Four unidentified black males also shot and wounded a white carpenter in an incident widely perceived to be related to the heightened tensions, although police have not confirmed the link.
Later that day, Mr. Reese resigned as acting superintendent, and the board reinstated Mr. Roussell in hopes he could defuse the conflict. The board also voted to close the city's schools for the following day, which stretched later to the remainder of the week, because they could not ensure the safety of students and staff.
On Feb. 8, protest leaders began an around-the-clock occupation of city hall. And students, who said they were acting on their own, similarly occupied Selma High School.
By the weekend, the ranks of protesters were swelled by civil-rights leaders from other states, as well as by black college students from throughout Alabama and as far away as New York and Michigan.
"In the '60s, it was the Selma movement that brought down the walls of disenfranchisement in this country for black and brown Americans," Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference told protesters. "Now in the '90s we are starting again in Selma to bring down the walls of unequal education."
Occupation Ended Voluntarily
On Feb. 12, with the schools closed for the fourth straight day, Mr. Roussell persuaded students to end their occupation of Selma High School.
"I told them that if they stayed there they would be suspended and recommended for expulsion, and I didn't have the stomach to do that," he said later. "I told them, rather than do that, I would resign."
The students' departure was hailed as a victory by white city officials, but it also weakened their chances of obtaining a federal court order barring continued protests.
Mayor Smitherman, who has been mayor here almost continuously since shortly before the marches of 1965, said the hoped-for court order would have enabled federal marshals to "restore law and order" in the city.
But U.S. District Judge Charles B. Butler, noting that lawyers for the protestors had said "further interference with the operation of Selma city schools or city government functions will not occur," denied the request for a temporary injunction.
City officials also said they hoped to persuade the state to take over the school system, but state education officials said last week they had received no formal requests for such assistance.
An Unlikely Hero
Ironically, Superintendent Roussell has become a hero for a black community that initially opposed his appointment, and a lightning rod for the anger of whites who once considered him a healer for the city's bruised racial image.
White officials insisted that the board's decision to release Mr. Roussell was based solely on disagreements with his leadership style, described in board members' evaluations as "abrasive" and damaging to the staff's morale.
"One of his problems throughout all of this has been dealing with personnel policies, with people," said Mr. Morris, the city councilman. "He would bring someone into his office, a teacher, and just absolutely curse them out."
Grace Hobbs, a white high-school teacher, said the superintendent "is very up front with everybody. He tells you what he thinks in no uncertain terms, and I do think that's intimidating for some people."
But black protest leaders insisted that the superintendent's negative evaluations stemmed primarily from changes he made to the district's student-tracking policies.
Mr. Roussell said he believes "we were in violation of the rights of our students" by using a system that placed them in one of three levels based primarily on teachers' recommendations.
"And of course, as you might imagine, the majority of students in the bottom levels were black," he said, "despite the fact that many had standardized-test scores as high or higher than those in the upper level."
Bobby Reddick, a black parent with three children in the district's lowest level, said, "I'd never even heard of levels before [Mr. Roussell] came. I was very upset about it. If I'm paying taxes for your kid to get an education, I think my kid should get the same education yours gets."
Mr. Roussell proposed, and the school board adopted, a policy that removed teacher evaluations from the tracking system, replaced them with standardized-test scores and grades, and created a mechanism for parental input into the decisions. He also instituted new graduation standards that require all students to take Algebra 1, Biology 1, Geography, and Computer Sciences--courses that many had previously been excluded from.
Those moves provoked a backlash in the white community, some of whose members feared that the new system would harm the education of their children.
"The basic position of the white community was that they wanted an honest program for the gifted students--for the best students," said Mr. Morris. "When they saw that being eliminated and the curriculum being watered down, theoretically, to a different level, they objected.''
Such feelings "come out of the notion that black kids are innately inferior, and that's simply not true," Mr. Roussell said.
Hank Sanders, a state senator and protest leader, said that the superintendent has not gone far enough to eliminate inequities in the school system, but that "if you have to pay such a high price for taking such a small step, you deserve support."
Black leaders are working through the federal courts and the state legislature to end the appointment of school-board members by the city council, and establish an elected board that would give blacks a greater voice in school decisions.
"Nothing will be resolved until we have a situation where everybody can win, not just blacks or not just whites," Mr. Roussell said.