Selma Confronts Tracking

By David Levine

In 1965, the moral imagination of the United States focused on the struggle against segregation in Selma, Alabama. Millions of Americans watched police brutally club civil rights marchers when Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to lead them on a walk to Montgomery, the state capitol. The marchers eventually prevailed over police violence, completed their march, and helped create the climate which made possible the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of this historic event, Selma residents find themselves again embroiled in a civil rights controversy. Angered over the impending removal of Selma’s first black school superintendent and racial discrimination within its schools, black citizens of the city and their supporters have marched, filed suits, boycotted, protested at school board meetings, and conducted sit-ins at the city hall and high school. The present conflict in Selma illustrates how the victories of the civil rights movement have moved the struggle for equality on to new terrain and thus brought forth new challenges. In the words of Joseph E. Lowery, president of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), “In the 60s, it was the Selma movement that brought down the walls of disenfranchisement for black and brown Americans. Now in the 90s we are starting again in Selma to bring down the walls of unequal education.”

In December of 1986, the six whites and five blacks on Selma’s school board voted unanimously to hire Dr. Norward Roussell as schools superintendent. During the early phase of his tenure, Dr. Roussell was viewed widely as a moderate who could bring progress without pain to Selma’s 6,000 student school system. He became the first black allowed to join the Rotary Club. According to Charles Morris, a white city councilman, “He came in, and he was the darling of the white community.”

De Facto Segregation

Dr. Roussell was able to retain the good will of the white community even as he began to remedy the inequities between Selma’s predominantly white and predominantly black schools. Even though officially sanctioned segregation had been ended, segregated neighborhoods in Selma meant de facto segregation for some of its elementary schools. According to BEST (Best Educational Support Team), a reform group founded in Selma in 1988, predominantly black schools were below the standards of predominantly white schools. “Textbooks in the predominantly black schools had forty-eight states, furniture was in disrepair, equipment was broken or obsolete, and halls were akin to dungeons.”

But Dr. Roussell found that addressing inequity at the high school level brought him into head to head confrontation with the school board’s white majority. When Selma’s schools were desegregated in 1970, the school administration instituted a tracking system which brought profoundly disturbing results. State Senator Hank Sanders explains, “Before the 60s we had separate and segregated schools, and then came this tracking, which was a way of students walking through the same school doors and getting segregated once they got inside.”

Strict Tracking System

Under the tracking system in effect at Selma High, 90% of the white student were in the highest track. Only 3% of the black students were allowed into the highest track, while the remaining 97% were relegated to the lower two tracks. Assignment to these tracks was based solely on teacher recommendation, and no criteria were established to help teachers make these judgements. According to BEST, “Hundreds of black students who performed well on standardized tests and had impressive grade point averages were tracked into levels two and three, though many of the black students’ performances soared well above those of their white counterparts placed in level one. In essence, most white children were placed in level one; high performing blacks were placed in level two and those [black students] performing below average were placed in level 3.”

At Selma High School tracking meant greatly reduced educational opportunity for the 50% of the black students placed in the bottom track. These students were not allowed to take Algebra I, Biology I, Geography I or Computer Sciences. When black parents became aware of how the tracking system worked they were enraged. Bobby Reddick, a parent with three children in level 3, said, “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.”

As documented by several researchers, the psychological effects of tracking can be just as devastating as disparities in course offerings. Robert E. Slavin, co-director of the elementary school program at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools, comments, “Where students are grouped, the lower ability groups get slower instruction, lower expectations, behavior problems increase and low achievement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy …It seems that once you are in a low track, you’re in it for life.”

At the urging of black parents, Dr. Roussell instituted policy changes which mandated that grade point averages and test scores become the criteria which determine which level a student is placed in. Following this reform, the percentage of black students in the highest level jumped from 3 to 10.

Sit-ins and Boycotts

Several white parents decided to take their children out of the public schools and over 200 met to protest Roussell’s actions. On December 21, 1989, the six white members who composed the school board’s majority voted not to renew his contract. Members of the school board majority justified their decision on the grounds that Roussell had an “abrasive” style and had intimidated teachers. Grace Hobbs, a white teacher, explained that Dr. Roussell “is very upfront with everybody. He tells you what he thinks in no uncertain terms, and I do think that’s intimidating for some people.”

Many within Selma’s black community argue that it was Dr. Roussell’s steps against discrimination, not his style, that go him into trouble. Rose Sanders, a lawyer and leader of the black protest, notes, “Only when he moved to get rid of the tracking system, did they move to get rid of him.”

Selma’s black community responded to the vote not to renew Roussell’s contract by reviving many of the tactics of the civil rights movement. Businesses which had ties to school board members were boycotted, and two one day boycotts of the schools were also organized. In February, protests escalated to include an around the clock sit-in at city hall. Acting on their own initiative, a group of students occupied the high school for four days. Yusef Salaam, a parent with five children in Selma’s schools, said, “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.”

At present, negotiations over Dr. Roussell’s future and further reforms of the school system are stalemated. But lawyers working on behalf of the black community have filed challenges against the school board majority. One lawsuit argues that the policy by which the school board is appointed by the city council violates the Voting Rights Act, and that it should be replaced by an elected board. Another suit contends that the board majority violated the state’s “sunshine law” by holding secret meetings during the controversy.

Activists within the black community believe that Selma’s white leadership hopes to simply wait out the protests but are underestimating how strongly black citizens feel about these issues. According to Connie Tucker, an active member of BEST, “The powers that be think we will get tired but folks are not willing to let this die. And some of the students have been meeting on their own initiative. They do not want to see their younger brothers and sisters exposed to this kind of education.”

David Levine teaches at Shalom High School in Milwaukee.