Leaders in Selma Reach Two Accords, Ending Racial Tensions Over Schools

By Peter Schmidt — September 05, 1990 2 min read

Black and white leaders in Selma, Ala., last week agreed to share power on the school board and to drop litigation against each other in an effort to end eight months of racial tension and protests at the city’s public schools.

In two separate but related developments, the city council and school board endorsed a plan establishing racial balance on the school board, and the city and black protesters agreed to end their battles in court.

The agreements came shortly after eight demonstrators were arrested for trespassing during orientation Aug. 17 at Selma High School. A suit subsequently was filed on behalf of 15 protesters accusing Mayor Joseph T. Smitherman and other city officials of selective prosecution and police harassment.

James Carter, interim superintendent of the Selma, Ala., schools, confronts demonstrators during protests that preceded racial accords.

The protests, organized by an activist group called the Best Educational Support Team, demonstrated continued dissatisfaction in the community over the district’s ability-grouping policies, its majority-white school board, and Mr. Smitherman, who is white.

Under a compromise made official last week by a city council resolution, the council, which appoints the school board, agreed to give the 11-member board black and white majorities in alternating years.

Effective immediately, the board will have five white and five black voting members and a white chairman, Carl Barker, who will vote only on litigation involving the board and stemming from the protests. Once the litigation is resolved, Mr. Barker will resign and will be replaced by a black chairman, giving the board its first black majority. Thereafter, the racial balance of the board will alternate.

Another resolution approved by the council last week calls for the city to drop some 130 arrest charges against about two dozen black demonstrators who have been involved in actions organized by BEST at schools and municipal buildings. The protest leaders, in turn, agreed to drop lawsuits against the city and white school-board members.

Henry Sanders, a state senator from Selma who has been a leader of BEST, said his organization also agreed to stop demonstrating at the schools but would continue to work to abolish tracking policies andseek passage of legislation establishing an elected school board.

Blacks now make up about 80 percent of the 6,000 students enrolled in Selma’s public schools; about half of the city’s 27,000 residents are black. Mayor Smitherman said a large number of white students had not returned to Selma High this year as a result of the racial protests there, but predicted that the easing of tensions “will get a lot of whites back who really cannot afford a private school.”

The city had been the site of sporadic protests since the school board voted last December not to renew the contract of Norward Roussell, the district’s first black superintendent. Last spring, schools were closed for five days due to protests. (See Education Week, Feb. 21. 1990.)

In May, the board appointed James Carter, a black educator, as interim superintendent.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Leaders in Selma Reach Two Accords, Ending Racial Tensions Over Schools