Selma Students Tied to the Track

By Stan Karp

In 1965 the courage of civil rights marchers in the face of police violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, aroused the nation and sped passage of the historic Voting Rights Act.

Twenty-five years later, black activists in Selma are engaged in another battle for equality. This time the focus is on schools and the right to equal, quality education. The campaign includes an explicit challenge to the “tracking system,” a pervasive source of educational inequity, not only in Selma but throughout the country, that has been largely untouched by recent rounds of school reform. If this new Selma campaign challenges tracking in schools as effectively as the earlier one challenged discrimination at the polls, it could prove nearly as significant.

Things began to heat up last December, when the white majority on the Selma school board voted to dismiss Dr. Norwood Roussell, the system’s first black superintendent. The 6-5 decision not to renew Roussell’s contract prompted all five black board members to walk out, and set off a round of protests, boycotts, picket lines and sit-ins that included, according to one veteran activist, “the largest mass meeting in Selma since the 1960s.”

Longtime Mayor Joe Smitherman, a white, told a Newsweek reporter that the problems in Selma’s schools had been stirred up by “an overpaid nigger from New Orleans.” Though no radical, Roussell had an independent style that offended the white. elite which still controls the city of 27,000 (52% black) by virtue of slim white majorities on most key municipal bodies and the considerable weight of racist tradition. But Roussell’s real problems with the board began when he responded to pressure from the black community to modify the “level” or tracking system in the city’s public schools.

Resegregated Schools

The rst adopted in 1970 when federal courts finally ordered Selma to integrate its schools, was a transparent effort to keep students segregated. Selma schoolchildren who had entered kindergarten back in 1954 when the Supreme Court first declared segregated systems illegal nevertheless had spent their entire educational lives in separate and unequal schools. White authorities resisted integration efforts and threatened those who spoke up for their rights. (About a year after the 1954 decision, twenty-nine black citizens signed a petition asking the Selma school board to act on the Supreme Court’s ruling. Sixteen lost their their jobs within a month and most of the rest withdrew the request under pressure.)

For nearly two decades the white community found ways to maintain dual systems (including dual homecoming queens, dual student officers, a black most popular student and a white most popular student). Many whites abandoned the public system and enrolled their children in all-white private academies. The public schools remained controlled by an all-white, self-perpetuating school board that filled its own vacancies. Even in the 1980s, after the black student population had grown to over 70% and lawsuits forced the creation of a board with black representation appointed by the city council, whites retained majority control.

But it was the tracking system that proved perhaps the most persistent and insidious barrier to educational equality. The system sifted and labeled Selma students into three categories. Level one students were given advanced college prep classes, the best teachers and the best educational resources. Level two students got a less rigorous version of academic subjects and vocational courses. Level three students got “the basics.” Students in the lowest level were not allowed to take algebra, biology, geography or other level one subjects necessary for college admission. Only 3% of black students were placed in level one, while 50% were consigned to level three.

Ninety percent of white students were routinely tracked to the top level. As Hank Sanders, Selma’s first black state senator since Reconstruction, explained, “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.”

More outrageous was the fact that there wasn’t even a pretense of objective criteria for the level system. Placement was not based on grades or test scores, but on teacher recommendation and administrative assignment. Black students with academic records equal or superior to level one white students were put in lower levels if, for example, teachers said they weren’t “mature enough.” Requests by parents or students for changes in level placement were regularly denied. And though tracking became more obvious and overt as students approached high school, the process of sifting and sorting reached deep into elementary levels, ticketing children to educational success or failure before they or their parents knew what was happening.

Challenging the System

Soon after he assumed office in 1987, Superintendent Roussell faced pressure to reform this system. A community group of parents, residents, and students called BEST (Best Education Support Team) was formed. BEST denounced the level system as discriminatory and totally unresponsive to the needs of the majority of public school students.

One key BEST organizer, Rose Sanders is a prominent Selma attorney and parent. She talks about the campaign against tracking with the insight of a veteran ivil rights worker and the urgency of an activist still very much on the case. Sanders recalls how a 16-year old student she worked with in a drama group came to her one day and complained that he wasn’t allowed to take algebra even though he wanted it. The level system blocked him from the college preparation he needed. Sanders also had a young daughter, then in the second grade, who was coming home with reading assignments far below her ability. When she checked into the matter, Sanders was told that her daughter was headed for the lower levels. Skeptical about this assessment, Rose had the child tested herself. She received scores that would have qualified a white student for gifted programs. BEST took these and similar examples to Dr. Roussell.

Roussell was an educational moderate who would not consider eliminating the level system, but he did agree to institute some criteria for student placement and make the system more flexible. Like many liberal educators, Roussell saw benign uses for “ability grouping,” but wanted the naked prejudices of the existing system replaced by a more legitimate process. BEST activists, who wanted levels scrapped completely, had reservations about this approach. They knew that the discrimination inherent in the level system could be translated into “objective” grades and test scores as surely as it could turn up in “subjective” administrative placements. They were aware that in schools throughout the country, elaborate tracking systems have repackaged and, ultimately, justified racial and class inequality as some sort of “meritocracy.” But BEST decided to support Roussell’s proposal as a first step towards dismantling the old system.

Even Roussell’s modest plan, however, drew immediate resistance from the white community. Selma school authorities have always focused on preserving the privileges of the shrinking white minority rather than serving the needs of black students, 40% of whom never graduate. Howls of “lowered standards” and threats of “white flight” were raised by the majority of white board members and many white parents. Yet one white board member, after slightly modifying Roussell’s standards, joined the five black members in voting for the proposal, and it passed.

The numbers of black students in level one courses quickly tripled and black parents and students were encouraged to work for further change. At the same time, the white authorities in town began to work for Roussell’s removal. More white parents, including one board member, enrolled their children in the segregated private academies. White school board members began to meet in secret, without the knowledge of the black members and in violation of the state’s sunshine laws, to plot Roussell’s downfall.

By the December 1989 meeting when the white majority voted not to renew Roussell’s contract, the black community was infuriated and ready to move. The black board members resigned on the spot and walked out. The next day, Roussell’s supporters organized picket lines at two banks and a service station owned by whites on the board. Parent activist Benson Webb recalls first becoming aware of the struggle when he saw picketers out in record cold weather wearing “fur coats, cloth coats and no coats.” Two successful one-day school boycotts were organized with broad support including over 90% of the black teachers. Legislation was presented to the city council calling for an elected board.

In February, the now all-white board, which continued to run the system alone, tried to suspend Roussell immediately. An angry mass march of about 2,000, chanting and singing, prevented the white school board from meeting. Two hundred students began a five-day sit-in at Selma High School demanding Roussell’s reinstatement and further changes in the level system.

Parents and BEST activists who attempted to meet with the Mayor were assaulted by police and arrested. Rose Sanders was brutally dragged away from one protest in handcuffs and ended up in the hospital.

Tensions were building as national attention focused on the 25th anniversary commemoration of the Selma voting rights march. The white board backed away from suspending Roussell immediately, though it still refused to renew his contract. Over two-hundred-fifty white students transferred out of the public system. Mayor Smitherman attacked protesters as “unemployed, homeless persons on welfare” and compromise negotiations broke down.

Throughout the spring and into the summer, BEST kept up the pressure with picket lines, legal actions, and demonstrations on the famous Edmund Pettus bridge. The “Children of Selma,” a theater group which included students involved in the BEST campaign, presented their struggle in song and dance to audiences around the country. (A new production, “Track Me to Freedom” is set for this fall.)

Activists Face Repression

At the same time, activists faced increasingly stiff local repression. Arrests and abuse of picketers increased. The names of teachers who had supported the boycotts were read over the radio and they were threatened with firing. An informant placed inside BEST urged the group to use violence before he was booted out. Efforts were made to destroy the Central Alabama Youth Services Agency because some agency staff members supported the BEST campaign. Rumors and drug charges were used to intimidate BEST activists. Injunctions were issued to prevent people from honking their car horns to show support for picketers. Over 70 fabricated charges against the law practice of Hank and Rose Sanders were filed with the state bar association. (At least one letter was sent in with the words “sample complaint” stamped across the top.) A black county commissioner who supported the protests was arrested and jailed for trying to attend a public appearance of the Mayor and Governor, although other commissioners and the press were admitted. The city filed a lawsuit against BEST charging it with discrimination against white students, trying to create a black school system, and disrupting city government.

The Struggle Continues

Despite the increasing time and resources BEST members were forced to devote to fighting off repression, it remained militantly focused on its goals. “All the money expended by the City of Selma in filing and defending law suits, overtime pay, and legal fees,” one BEST statement declared, “would have been more than enough to

build a state-of-the-art elementary school in flood-prone East Selma where children cannot even attend school when it rains hard. Now, who are the fools?”

But the repression did succeed in dampening the level of mobilization and activism. Although BEST continued its protests when schools opened this past August, burning an effigy of “racist miseducation,” setting up a Parent Tent Center for Justice in Education near the high school, and enduring yet another round of arrests for “trespassing,” conservative forces in the black community began to press for a settlement. An elite black social club declared its support for the board and for the interim superintendent, James Carter, a black assistant of Roussell’s who had taken a hard line against the protests. The Mayor and school board began negotiations with the boycotting black board members, conservative black leaders, and other city authorities. BEST was pointedly excluded from the negotiations. As activist parent Connie Tucker explained, “They did not want to give BEST credit for having achieved a settlement. The reason there was a settlement at all was because BEST stood up. There would not have even been any change without BEST.”

The settlement called for reinstating and extending the terms of all five black board members. The white board president agreed to resign and be replaced by a black if and when outstanding litigation against the Board is dropped. This would give blacks a majority on the school board for the first time, although the settlement also calls for “rotating” the racial majority on the board in the future. Charges against demonstrators stemming from the protests would also be dropped.

According to BEST’s Tucker, the settlement was “not one that we’re happy with.” The agreement, she noted, allowed authorities “to get away without addressing what the real problems are.” It says nothing about tracking. In fact, the Board denies that any tracking problem exists. It doesn’t settle the issue of Roussell’s replacement or provide for an elected school board. And the provision to rotate the Board’s racial majority simply perpetuates an old injustice. “Certainly if there were an 80% white student population,” Tucker points out, “there’d be no question about that board needing to be predominantly white. It wouldn’t even be an issue. So this compromise is not a moral one. It is just simply not fair.”

While the settlement closes a chapter in the recent struggle, BEST remains committed to its original demands: an elected, responsive school board, a progressive black superintendent to replace Roussell, and a complete end to the level system. It plans to continue organizing, increase its efforts at parent education and, in Tucker’s words, “expand our analysis of the problem of education for African Americans to include not only tracking but the general miseducation of our children and how blacks and other minorities are left out of the curriculum.”

Stan Karp teaches English and Journalism at J.F.K. High School in Patterson, New Jersey.

For more information: Contact: BEST P.O. Box 1305 Selma, AL 36702