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Black Activists' Afrocentric Agenda Shakes Denver Schools

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First came the speeches by Nation of Islam minister Jamal X, also known as Jamal Muhammad, sprinkled with references to Europeans eating each other and living in caves while Africans built the Pyramids.

Then came the meeting where a faction of black activists didn't ask for, but demanded, control of a multimillion-dollar grant so they could set up schools with an Afrocentric curriculum.

Next came a walkout by 200 mostly African-American high school students, triggering a legal battle between the district and a group of black activists whom school officials have accused of fomenting the student unrest.

Race relations have been less than tranquil lately in the Denver public schools.

A Matter of Race

After years in which Latinos largely took the lead in protesting conditions in the city's 110 schools, African-American activists have seized center stage. Employing rhetoric that many have denounced as separatist and anti-white, factions of the black community energized by last fall's Million Man March in Washington have clashed bitterly in recent months with school officials and the city's more established black leaders.

The battles have shaken a city that is unaccustomed to the in-your-face tone that often marks race relations on the East and West coasts, and have revealed sharp divisions among its black residents. The controversies have also increased the pressure on the 64,000-student district to better serve a student body that has evolved quickly from predominantly white to more than 70 percent minority.

"Denver is a city that is in a state of denial," said Nick Cutforth, a professor of education at the University of Denver who runs an after-school program in a city elementary school plagued by poverty and low test scores. "You have a lot of kids of color in the system who weren't there 10 or 15 years ago. You have this huge communication problem."

Harsh Words

The recent clashes have come at a time of sweeping change for the district, as it responds to a federal court ruling in September lifting a 21-year-old school-desegregation order. In that ruling, the judge not only told the district that it no longer had to bus students to achieve racial balance, but also upheld a state constitutional amendment that actually prohibits districts not under court order from doing so. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

In the wake of the decision, the school board has scrambled to redraw attendance boundaries, set policies governing transfers and magnet school enrollment, and find homes for various special programs. (See Education Week, Jan. 24, 1996.)

The most hotly debated part of the process was a plan by the board to move a Montessori magnet program that enrolls many white students from a mainly minority northeast neighborhood to a school in the city's primarily white southeast section that previously had been closed because of low enrollment.

The district ultimately decided to move the program to the southeast school to make room for northeast children returning to their neighborhood school, but not before the debate left its scars.

Residents of all races were among those urging the district to leave the program where it was. But some black residents in the northeast neighborhood effectively said good riddance to what they saw as an elitist interloper draining resources from their children.

As the Montessori debate wound down last month, the conflict was escalating between school officials and organizers of a planned Million Man March event later this month. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has been invited to speak at the April 29 rally at the Denver Coliseum.

The most controversial of the event's organizers is Jamal Muhammad, Mr. Farrakhan's representative in Denver.

Mr. Muhammad, who formerly went by the name Jamal X, burst into public prominence following a February speech he gave during school hours at Montbello High School, where the student body is nearly three-quarters black.

Although much of the High School, where the student body is nearly three-quarters black.

Although much of the speech featured the Nation of Islam's trademark calls for more personal responsibility and less violence among blacks, it was laced with the racially inflammatory rhetoric for which the Chicago-based group has become widely known. The address was targeted to male students exclusively, another sore point with critics.

Superintendent Irv Moskowitz and the school board subsequently denounced the speech, saying it reeked of separatism and bigotry. But shortly afterward, a divided board narrowly allowed Mr. Muhammad to again address students, this time at an after-school rally at East High School in late February.

Student Protest

The board's forbearance toward Mr. Muhammad evaporated, however, when students at George Washington High School walked out of classes in mid-March. School officials and other community leaders charged the Million Man March organizers with instigating the walkout and of manipulating the students to grab headlines and win converts.

The organizing committee denied those accusations, insisting that the students acted on their own, out of frustration over disciplinary issues, the principal's cancellation of a black club's assembly, and a curriculum that gives short shrift to minorities.

Amid this war of words, committee organizers applied for a permit to let Mr. Muhammad hold another after-school rally at George Washington High. The district quickly rejected the idea. The committee, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, then filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an order allowing the rally to proceed on April 22.

In the ACLU's view, the district's action is a clear-cut infringement of Mr. Muhammad's right to free speech. But district officials say the real issue is that they can't do business with a group that has incited students to leave school, and that the objectionable elements of Mr. Muhammad's message are beside the the point.

"They've failed in the test of leadership by not encouraging those kids to stay in school," said Aaron Gray, the African-American minister who is the board's president. "Now more than ever our kids need to be in school."

Alvertis Simmons, the executive director of the local Million Man March committee, considers Mr. Gray a traitor.

"We're calling Aaron Gray the Clarence Thomas of Denver, because he's a black guy against black people," said Mr. Simmons, who is on leave from his job as an aide to Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. The mayor, who is also black, has praised Mr. Gray for speaking out against separatism, but has said the march organizers have a free-speech right to hold the rally.

Signs of Hope

Meanwhile, the district has clashed with a faction of African-American residents who last month tried to wrest control of a $2.4 million grant from a community-based group of parents and principals. Two local parents had won the federal money to create a system of seven magnet schools in the Park Hill section of northeast Denver.

During a public confrontation widely denounced for strong-arm tactics, the activists virtually ordered the grant recipients to step aside and let them use the money to create schools with an African-centered curriculum.

Since that well-publicized showdown in early March, the activists have moderated their stance and the grant-management team has met with them in an effort to reach accord on the direction of the planned magnet schools.

Still, Mr. Gray has threatened to ask the school board to authorize the district to take direct control of the grant to avoid having it used to promote a black-separatist agenda. In a district with such diversity--46 percent of the citywide student body is Hispanic, 29 percent white, and 21 percent black--he maintains that inclusiveness and multiculturalism must be the guiding principles in all schools.

Despite the recent turmoil, Adrienne Benavidez, a co-chairwoman of Denver's Latino Education Coalition, sees hope for the district's future in the renewed pressure for change.

After protests that included a hunger strike and a massive student walkout in 1994, her advocacy group persuaded the district to form a series of committees seeking ways to fight low student achievement among Hispanics.

"Quite frankly, I'm pleased that the African-American community is coming forward," Ms. Benavidez said. "The educational system is failing their children, too, and they need to be heard."

The recent strife notwithstanding, Denver school officials say they fully intend to listen. Superintendent Moskowitz, noting that he met for three hours not long ago with student leaders of the George Washington walkout, said he was committed to satisfying some, if not all, of their demands. He said the district would continue to examine its programs and curriculum to find ways of doing better by its nonwhite students.

"While we've addressed many of these issues over time," Mr. Moskowitz said, "that doesn't say to us that we don't have more work to do."

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