Weekly Briefing

Anti-segregation demonstration planned for July 20

Wake schools debate takes new and positive turn

It's a funny thing about history and politics: Sometimes movements for change and progress crop up in the places you would least expect them. Consider Wake County, North Carolina, for example. It's hardly the kind of place that you would expect to be a hotbed of controversy or dissent.

Though it is home to the capital city of the state that suffered the greatest number of casualties on behalf of the Confederacy, Wake County is in many ways the quintessential locale of the modern, American, sunbelt melting pot. Its population is booming, increasingly diverse and comparatively well-off. It is widely acclaimed as an extremely livable area with a mild climate, good schools, an educated populace, a low crime rate and many forward-thinking community leaders. It is, in many ways, the shining star of a fast growing and increasingly powerful state that will soon be the nation's seventh largest.

So, in light of all of this, who would have predicted that it would become the flashpoint in increasingly rancorous statewide and national debates over the future of public education? Two years ago, few would have foreseen such a development. Today, however, it's increasingly apparent that this is precisely what is happening. Stoked by the heavy-handed and tin-eared actions of a narrow school board majority elevated in a fluke election, the controversy in Wake County continues to escalate.

New and positive momentum

Happily, almost all of the escalation in the debate from the protesters on the outside is of a positive kind. Unlike so many periods in the past in which school desegregation debates brought out angry, even violent, confrontations, the energy in Wake County is surprisingly humble and positive. Not only are the opponents of the board majority universally peaceful, they are also well-informed and willing to admit their own past mistakes and shortcomings. More importantly, they are not just against the board majority; they are for something – namely an honest and thorough assessment of Wake County's current approaches to public education and a renewed commitment to fixing what's really broken and building on past achievements.

Last week, four faith leaders from the anti-re-segregation movement committed an act of civil disobedience at a school board meeting to symbolize their profound opposition to what they view as the Board majority's unconstitutional actions to roll back school integration. Last night, those same leaders helped spearhead a rather remarkable community meeting/ecumenical revival at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in which a multi-racial crowd of 250 people gathered to sing, pray, old hands and commit themselves to what is clearly a growing and increasingly energetic movement.

Here are some of the highlights of the event:

Rev. Nancy Petty, Pastor at Pullen, opened the gathering with some Biblical references from Isaiah to remind those in attendance that the meeting was about building and restoration – not destruction or mere opposition for opposition's sake. She also cited Martin Luther King's famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail for the proposition that four tasks ought to guide the anti-re-segregation movement at this time: 1) collection of the facts, 2) negotiation with those in power where possible, 3) honest self-assessment and "purification," and 4) direct action.

Petty was followed to the podium by Mary Williams, the parent of three Wake County school students and a gospel singer extraordinaire. Williams warned (in word and song) about the likelihood that the board majority's actions will lead not just to the literal and physical re-segregation of Wake County students, but to the "re-segregation of their minds" and the likely spread of "the thought of hopelessness" in a large and growing number of lower income children as they are cordoned off into high poverty assignment zones.

After Williams, the gathering heard from Dr. Tim Tyson of Duke University. Tyson, of course, is also the well-known author of the book and film "Blood Done Sign My Name," and the organizational historian of the NAACP of North Carolina. Tyson provided attendees with a fascinating historical look at the evolution and elevation of the school board majority, its close political connections to far right political power brokers Art Pope and Bob Luddy and the history of the group's favored sound bite terms: "forced busing" and "neighborhood schools."

According to Tyson, both of these terms can be traced directly to the work of cynical, far right political operatives from the 1960's. "Forced busing" was coined and popularized by one of Richard Nixon's young henchmen, Kevin Phillips (ironically Phillips later underwent an ideological transformation and became a critic of economic inequality). Likewise, "neighborhood schools," is traceable to Asa Carter – a KKK bigwig who gave the phrase to George Wallace to popularize.

Tyson made clear that he was not comparing chief school board spokesperson John Tedesco to Wallace or Carter. He put it this way: "John Tedesco just sticks to his lines. Unfortunately, his lines stick to him."

As Tyson noted, despite all of the board majority's promises about ending "forced busing," all of its potential plans will include the busing of children to assigned schools not of their choice. "It's only ‘forced busing' if the school at the end of the line is a diverse one," he said.

Tyson was followed to the podium by a trio of stalwarts from the North Carolina African-American faith community: Margaret Murray, a matriarch of the Raleigh civil rights community, Rev. Earl Johnson of Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh, and Rev. Anthony Davis of the AME Zion Church (who announced on behalf of his bishop, that the church's entire Eastern District of North Carolina would be lending it support to the Wake County movement).

Next steps

As is often the case with these events, however, the highlight of the evening came when Rev. William Barber, the charismatic President of the North Carolina NAACP, addressed the gathering. Like Tim Tyson, Barber grounded his remarks in the history – noting that the fight against school segregation in North Carolina went back almost a century prior to Brown v. Board of Education - to the 1860's and 70's when Black and White "Fusionists" worked together to successfully oppose efforts to officially embed segregation in the North Carolina Constitution's treatment of public education.

In calling for new and sustained action to oppose the efforts of the school board majority, Barber called for a rebirth of that same spirit. Barber also spoke of a "letter from the Wake County Jail" that he and Petty had begun to pen during their brief incarceration last week and hoped to release in the near future.

Barber concluded his remarks with the announcement of a mass demonstration that would take place in Raleigh on the day of the school board's scheduled July 20 meeting (for which details will be announced in the coming days). Judging by the positive energy evident at Monday night's hastily called meeting, it could well be quite an event. However unlikely its presence at the epicenter of this debate might have seemed a year or two ago, now that Wake County has been thrust into the center of the fight for social justice, let's hope progressive advocates continue to do things with the same level of passion and positive energy that has marked their work thus far.