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Death Threats Linked To Desegregation Efforts in Duval

By Lisa Jennings — June 13, 1990 3 min read

Police in Jacksonville, Fla., last week arrested a 47-year-old black city resident and charged him with distributing posters and fliers throughout the city offering $10,000 for the murder of seven black members of a school district desegregation team.

According to police, Ralph Leon Stephens was being held last week on charges of solicitation to commit first-degree murder and extortion. More arrests are possible in the case, a police spokesman said.

Police said that Mr. Stephens had been seen picketing buildings of the Duval County school district, local offices of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the city’s newspaper offices to protest local school-desegregation efforts.

The Duval County board of education is scheduled to vote this week on a new desegregation plan.

The proposal--which centers on the creation of magnet schools to end the current system of busing--was announced last week with the joint support of Larry L. Zenke, the district superintendent, and civic leaders.

The agreement was reached after five months of deliberations by the team--which included school officials and representatives from the NAACP and the local Urban League, several of whom have been under 24-hour police protection for weeks because of death threats.

The fliers and posters that were distributed declared that the seven black members of the team were “wanted dead or alive for self-serving crimes, murdering our kids’ future! Shoot on sight, $10,000 guarantee.”

Among the seven was Willye Dennis, president of the local NAACP. It was not the first threat against Ms. Dennis. Last December a package bomb addressed to her was intercepted at the organization’s offices. Mr. Stephens has not been linked to that crime.

Others threatened included Wendell Holmes and Samuel Nesbitt of the school board; Fred Matthews, the NAACP’s education chairman; Ronnie Ferguson, the local Urban League president; the Rev. Rudolph McKissick; and Alvin White, the assistant schools superintendent.

White participants in the desegregation plan were not threatened.

Mr. White said he was relieved by the arrest last week, but that he will “feel better when police rule out the possibility of additional arrests.”

‘Not a Black-White Issue’

Mr. Zenke contended that the threats against those involved in desegregation efforts did not represent the “prevailing mood of cooperation in Jacksonville.”

“I’m appalled that anyone would use that as a tactic to express himself,” he added, “but it was not a white-black issue.”

The superintendent and board members last week expressed confidence that the new desegregation proposal would be adopted by the board. But the plan must also be approved by a federal court.

Duval County has been under a court order to desegregate its schools since 1970.

In 1988, the district was declared unitary--or integrated to the point of meeting federal standards--by a federal judge. But that ruling was overturned last September by a federal appeals court.

School officials and black community leaders agreed that, in order to avoid another 20 years of a court order, a joint plan had to be developed.

The new plan, which would be implemented over two years, seeks to end busing by turning 30 of the city’s 144 schools into magnet schools, which would attract white students to schools serving mostly black neighborhoods.

Under the plan, the entire district would be reorganized to create four-year high schools. Middle schools for grades 6 through 8 would replace the current 7th- and 8th-grade centers by the 1991-92 school year.

Seven new schools would be built under the plan, and the district would commit $60 million to renovate existing inner-city schools.

In addition, a seven-member, racially mixed, review committee would monitor the plan’s implementation.

The superintendent predicted that the new plan would calm the somewhat troubled race relations throughout the city."We know now that we can talk amicably, and that we don’t have to just stare angrily at each other in court,” he said. “We truly believe it’s a new day.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 1990 edition of Education Week as Death Threats Linked To Desegregation Efforts in Duval