Selma: What Has Changed?
By Christina Matthews
Vol. 13, No. 4, 1991, pp. 12-15
More than two decades after the civil rights movement came to Selma. Ala, the public school system there remains segregated. Schools in Selma, like many schools throughout the U.S.. have been resegregated within the city, within buildings, and within classrooms. 1990 saw angry parents begin to protest when the first superintendent to challenge the Selma system–not coincidentally also the first African American superintendent–was fired, in a Board of Education (BOE) vote divided strictly along racial lines.
Blatant as the problem is in Selma, it is dangerous to see it as an exception. Selma is not just a place somehow stuck in time, failing to be enlightened while the rest of the country has progressed. Tracking in the schools plagues New Haven, Conn.’s children as it does Selma’s. Harassment for organizing opposition to such institutions occurs elsewhere as well. Certainly George Bush, in calling for the “power of the individual” suggests this country’s intolerance for collective action, and its impatience with calls for a reshaping of institutions. In a sense, Selma once again stands as an example. a place where the injustices of a racist and classist society are blatant enough as to make them easily recognizable.
Though the Voting Rights Act followed closely on the heels of the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, many things haven’t changed in Selma. In this small Southern city of 27,000, 53 percent of whom are black. Joe T. Smitherman, the mayor who in 1965 lauded Sheriff Jim Clark’s infamous attack on demonstrators at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. still holds that office. Clark himself is no longer the sherift but F. D. “Cotton” Nichols, a deputy in 1965, now holds the position. Then-city attorney Mclean Pitts is gone, but his son, Henry Pitts, now defends the city’s interests on legal matters. Only in 1972 did Selma begin to elect city council members by district rather than in at-large elections.
Predictably, the African American citizens of Selma–as elsewhere–continue to suffer unequal treatment. One particularly devastating area of discrimination has been the city’s public schools. Through a tracking system, the now-integrated public school system continues to provide white students with a better education than it does black students.
The city council, which has never had a black majority, appoints the school board, and only five of the eleven members of the school board are African American, though the school system has had a majority black student body since 1975. Prior to 1991, the schools had never been governed by a school board with a black majority. The first African American superintendent, Dr. Norward Roussell, was hired in 1987.
The system Dr. Roussell inherited was known for its practice of leveling,” a plan of organized “levels of instruction” that assured white parents their children would get preferential treatment.” “Levels of instruction” has translated, in Selma, into a rigid tracking system. For many black students and poor, white students, it has meant being trapped in the lower levels of a hierarchical system of instruction, where they received a second rate education and the message that they are inherently stupider than students in the upper levels. The different levels–there were four until the mid1980s, and there are still three–were originally kept physically separate as well, with lunch hours scheduled at different times. Students rarely had a chance to form friendships with students in other levels, and, because of the racial segregation in the levels, this also meant that friendships between white and black students were even rarer than they might otherwise have been. The schools were effectively resegregated within the walls of a single school building.
Until recently, when Dr. Roussell made some changes, assignment of students to their “lever remained completely at the discretion of teachers, who did not have to justify their placement of a child based on test scores or even past performance. Though students placement was ostensibly based on ability, students–especially black students–with high test scores often found themselves in the lower levels. White students, particularly those from influential families, enjoyed the courses available only to students in the top levels, and reaped the benefits of some equipment, like computers, that was specifically intended for the top level. No black teachers taught Advanced Placement level classes of history or math. Only fifteen percent of black students took algebra, though eighty-five percent of American public high school students take the class. Neither the students themselves nor their parents could do anything to move their child out of classes that were too easy, the decision rested with teachers alone.
Many parents were unaware of the policy, and others believed that the system would recognize and account for the
abilities of their children. Because there was no written policy, parents could only rely on teachers. “They told the public it was a means of grading, and we believed that … we thought they’d move [the students] up. We were very trusting of the system … but it took a lot of motivation out of the kids,” said Nancy Sewell, a librarian at Selma High. Her daughter, who became the first (and, so far, the only) black valedictorian was placed in level II math in the sixth grade. She wasn’t challenged by the work in that class, and Mrs. Sewell asked that her daughter be moved up to the more difficult class, and the teacher told her she should be worrying about her other children, not her daughter, and refused to move the girl up. Only in the next year was the girl moved up, and only because, Mrs. Sewell felt, the guidance counselor was both black and a personal friend of hers. She believed that the “officials” didn’t know of the switch.
Failures of the Selma City School System to respond to the needs of children–particularly bight African American children–abound. Children who tested extremely well on reading tests have been told that they are not “mature enough” to move up to a more challenging class; black children with higher test scores have remained in lower levels than white children with lower test scores.
It has been nineteen years since the Selma school system became integrated. The student body has been majority African American since 1975. four years after integration. Currently, more than eighty percent of the students are black. Until very recently, the school had never been governed by a school board with a black majority. In all of the years since integration, there has been one black valedictorian and one black salutatorian.
Dr. Norward Roussell came to Selma from New Orleans In February of 1987. Especially because of Selma’s history as a town with troubled race relations, he had high hopes of demonstrating to the country that integrated public education could work and work well. When he arrived, he found celous discrepancies between the facilities at historically black mid historically white elementary schools: some black schools had received their books as hand-me-downs from white schools; some had outdated maps with only forty-eight states on them: sonic of the white schools had computerlabs, while the black schools had maybe two or three computers for the whole school.
Roussell also found that there was a system of leveling” in place, a system that everyone knew about and talked about, but for which there was no written policy. He had never heard the term before–but had heard of “grouping.” lie had heard of “tracking.” but he had never heard of “leveling.” ‘I’m not against grouping students,” he said, “hut I am against tracking, and this leveling thing tracks students in a way that–given there was no criteria -black and poor students were sort of left to chance as to where they would fall out in the grouping.” According to Roussell, some of the students in the higher levels had low scores, and some of the students in the lower levels had high scores–meaning that depending on who you were, you got into the class.” Many parents did not realize that their children were in lower levels or what that meant, as the children brought home As and Bs. Only later, when told that their children were not qualified for advanced classes in high school since they had been in lower level classes in junior high and elementary school, did they recognize the reality of levels, and what that meant for their children’s educations and their futures. According to Malika Sanders, at the time a senior at Selma High, “it levels a students’s spirit. The teacher picks who they want to be in level I. The few black students who are in level I are usually middle class.”
It was Dr. Roussell’s discovery that the “leveling” system was a tracking system that ultimately got him fired by the school board. “Leveling” had been an issue of concern before 1990, when protests erupted over the topic. Parents had spoken with Roussell about the problem. and BEST had been raising the issue for some time. BEST (Best Education Support Team) was a coalition of concerned African American parents, who, in addition to lobbying for changes in the schools, sponsored educational programs outside the schools. BEST’ met with Roussell to discuss the leveling issue in September of 1988, soon after Roussell arrived, and spoke at school board meetings, voicing their concern over the leveling system.” Teachers like Loretta Winberly, a guidance counselor in the Selma City Schools who knew that tracking was a reality, joined BEST. BEST also included many leaders from the African American community. Among others, it included County Commissioner Perry Varner, State Senator Hank Sanders, Danny Crenshaw, director of Dallas County Youth Services and Ronald Peoples, dean of students at a local college.
A few of BESTs prominent members worked at a local law firm, the largest all-black firm in Alabama, and later, much of the responsibility for the protests was placed on those members, particularly attorney Rose Sanders, Senator Sander’s wife. In addition to being a lawyer, Rose Sanders works extensively with children, writing, and putting together musicals, and organizing leadership camps. She is also very outspoken, and much of the rancor toward the protest movements was directed at her, as well as toward her colleagues at the law firm. Many of the white opponents of the movement saw BEST as her pawn, ignoring the other people involved.
Dr. Roussell feels that the changes he made in grouping students was one of the primary reasons for the level of control the school board exercised over him while he was superintendent and ultimately for his firing in December of 1989. Roussell claims that he was not given autonomy usually given a superintendent; black members of the BOE and others also claimed that Roussell’s hands were tied by the Board.
Roussell asserts that the changes he made in the school in general, and in the leveling system in particular, were to
benefit all students, not just African American children. The board, though, considered his challenges to the leveling system threatening, as tampering with a “sacred cow.” Roussell believes he paid for his challenge in decreased autonomy and, ultimately, with the loss of his job.
On Dec, 21 1989, the school board met to discuss the renewal of Dr. Roussell’s contact. Without stating their reasons, the white members of the board voted not to renew his contract. The five black members of the board walked out in protest.
On the 28th, black board members gave their reasons for walking out in a statement signed by all five. Among them was the fact that “Dr. Roussell was not allowed the same authority and freedom as previous superintendents.” They said that “[t]he unjust firing of Norward Roussell was not the only reason for our resignations. It was the final action in a series of events that occurred over the past years. “They claimed that some white members had been trying for some time to terminate Roussell’s contract. Shiela Okoye. one of the members who walked out, said that in leaving they were demonstrating just how much power they actually had: none.
The day after the white members of the HOE voted to fire Roussell, BEST members and began picketing.
Although the temperature was well below freezing, they picketed City Hall, as well as two downtown banks where two school board members had ties.
Picketing continued after Christmas. and BEST members talked of organizing a school boycott. Roussell went on record opposing the boycott, to which BEST responded in a leaflet: “Dr. Roussell went on record opposing the boycott. We are morally required to speak out for him and our children. BOYCOTT SELMA CITY SCHOOLS.” On the first day back from vacation, almost 1500 students stayed away from the city schools, one-third of Selma High students boycotting. Roussell called for the schools to close, but his decision was overridden by school board chairman Carl Barker and Mayor Smitherman. and schools remained open.
On Feb. 2. the school board notified Roussell that he was suspended for the remainder of his contact period because his continuing presence was “disruptive.
On Feb. 4. the five white members of the school board appointed Selma High School principal F.D. Reese as acting superintendent. The black school board members were not notified of the meeting.
BEST protests continued, focusing largely around City Hall. where demonstrators sat in alter-hours. A confrontation in the mayor’s office on Monday, Feb. 5, resulted in the protests’ first arrests. Rose Sanders, County Commissioner Perry Varner, and attorney Carlos Williams were all arrested when they tried to force their way into the mayor’s office after he had kept them waiting for an hour-and-a-half–they did not have an appointment but had been told that the mayor would see them.
BEST called another boycott and in light of that and because the protests downtown had escalated tensions, school was canceled on Wednesday, Feb. 7. At around noon on Feb. 8, about two-hundred Selma High School students took over the cafeteria, and refused to come out until Roussell was reinstated. They remained in the school until the evening of the following Monday, when Roussell visited them and said that he would resign unless they came out During their stay Mayor Smitherman asked Governor Guy Hunt for National Guardsman and state troopers, which the governor sent Governor Hunt said “I’ve never been known to be fond of lawyers. I think they cause more trouble than they settle. I think that’s what’s happening in Selma.” School remained canceled “for safety reasons” until Feb. 13th, and when it resumed the schools were still guarded by Alabama State Troopers and military police as well as by most of Selma’s own police force; a helicopter hovered overhead as school reopened. The extra security at the schools–the troopers and the MPs–stayed in place until the 20th.
White students began to leave the Selma school system soon after the protests began, most of them for Selma’s segregated private schools. The exodus of white students left the city schools eighty-five percent black–they had been about seventy-five percent black before the protests began. Smitherman later asserted that it appeared to be reaching a point where only those whose parents cannot afford private schools would remain in the public system.
Protests continued downtown through February. with protesters continuing to sit in at City Hall both day and night and sleeping in tents set up outside the building.
On Feb. 18, Roussell filed a $10 million suit against the BOE under Title VII of the 1977 Civil Rights Act; he asserted that his firing was a response to his “dismantling” of a leveling system which offered a better education to white
students than to black ones.
Attempts to quiet the protest movement did not stop at restraining orders and compelling students to pledge not to boycott. In the course of that spring, numerous leaders of the protests were threatened with loss of their jobs.
The city filed a complaint against employees of Central Alabama Youth Services, a local juvenile detention facility. They had, the city alleged, been involved in unlawful conduct which disrupted government operations. CAYS director Danny Crenshaw was among those cited for contempt because of his involvement in the protests.
Dr. H. Mallory Reeves, husband of white BOE member Martha Reeves, wrote to Selma University’s trustee chairman in Mobile, calling for the removal of Ron Peoples, dean of students at Selma University; “his unstable behavior and unreasonable political views can only harm your school and the community of Selma,” he wrote. Peoples had bee arrested on March 26 along with other protesters.
The city targeted Yusef Salaam, a staff attorney at Legal Services Corp., which provides legal help for people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The city urged Legal Services headquarters in Washington. D.C. to investigate his involvement in “illegal” protests, providing videotapes and photos of his demonstration involvement. The city asked that the Selma office of Legal Services be closed, or at least that Salaam be fired or transferred.
Attorneys J.L Chestnut, Rose Sanders, Hank Sanders, and Carlos Williams, all partners at Alabama’s largest black law firm, and all of whom had been involved in the protests, were investigated by the Alabama Bar Association for “illegal” activities.
Roussell accepted a $l50,000 buy out offer from the BOE, and resigned on May 7, agreeing also to drop his lawsuit against the BOE. He also agreed not to reapply for the job.
BEST’s tactics have not pleased everyone in Selma’s African American community. However, like Shiela Okoye, one of the school board members who walked out when Roussell was fired, many approve of the fact that BEST is challenging the status quo in Selma. “Someone needs to do it.” she said. Nancy Sewell, too, who was never a member of BEST and was involved in only a few of the protests, said “Hats off to them for hanging in there. I may disagree with some of the tactics, but I support their ideas, and they are being persistent about bringing about meaningful change.” She said that the whole affair has been a “rude awakening” for her “I am a moderate, I tried to be ‘fair,’ and I really felt that that man [Roussell] would make a difference.” Both Sewell and Okoye believe that Roussell was fired for trying to change the leveling system, and that his supposed alignment with BEST hurt him, too.
White leaders of Selma have a less charitable attitude toward BEST and its motives. Chamber of Commerce employee Edie Jones, one of the BOE leaders seeking to fire Roussell, sees BEST as an almost demonic force trying to rip Selma apart. “They want complete control of this community and everything in it,” she said. She sees their tactics as suspect as well as their motives, and says of their complaints, “these people are very, very convincing, they’re very skilled,” and that, “if anything, poor Norward Roussell was used by those people.”
Mayor Smitherman declined to meet with me despite many calls and a lot of waiting, but his attitude seems evident. A Newsweek photographer said that Smitherman characterized Roussell as “an overpaid nigger from New Orleans,” though the mayor denies having said that He said the protesters “believe in the law of the jungle, in whoever growls the loudest.” City Council president Carl Morgan apparently told another out-of-town reporter that the school protests were led by “two little nigger girls.,, White parents sponsored an all-white prom this year, and one white Selma High student said that it was “a way for us to get back at them for what they did to us in February.”
Prominent members of the African American community have been involved in BEST and the protests. Many of them are well-educated (both of the Sanders graduated from Harvard Law School) people; many have jobs that serve the community, such as jobs at Legal Services and jobs in education. Hank Sanders is a state senator; Perry Varner an elected county commissioner. The black members of the school board, none of them in BEST, walked out of their own accord. The black city council members, also unrelated to BEST, also walked out over related issues.
In the fall of 1990, an agreement was reached in Selma which will probably not solve the problems; it may, however, protect the power structure from protests and accusations of blatant racism. The school board will now rotate racial majorities each year–a move following almost exactly the proposal that was put before the city council by black members in February. The city and BEST agreed to drop all suits against one another.
Update: As school began in the fall of 1991, 24 African American student were suspended and threatened with expulsion for allegedly attacking a white student. When BEST protested again, the expulsions were voided, but several student were facing charges in juvenile court.
Before this incident, a lawsuit was filed protesting the violation of policies in the hiring of a new superintendent, selected at a school board meeting where four black em members, including the chair, were absent.
Young people who organized the 1990 sit-in at Selma High School have produced a play about their experiences with tracking, “Track Meet of Freedom,” which they are performing around the region. For information about the play call Gloria Lassiter, 205-788-4042.
Christina Matthews wrote this article while a student at Yale University. She is currently living in Mexico.