ARTICLE

‘Not One Step Back’ in Wake County

Last Saturday, on one of North Carolina’s sunniest, warmest days this winter, thousands of people gathered in front of Shaw University in Raleigh to participate in the NAACP’s annual march for justice, workers’ rights and educational equality. The march has been dubbed the “HK on J,” or “historic thousands on Jones Street.” By mid-day, that’s exactly what it was: Too many people to count snaking through downtown Raleigh toward the state legislative building.

Last Saturday, on one of North Carolina’s sunniest, warmest days this winter, thousands of people gathered in front of Shaw University in Raleigh to participate in the NAACP’s annual march for justice, workers’ rights and educational equality. The march has been dubbed the “HK on J,” or “historic thousands on Jones Street.” By mid-day, that’s exactly what it was: Too many people to count snaking through downtown Raleigh toward the state legislative building.

This year, the march took on added importance. The policy of busing students to maintain economically and racially diverse schools in Wake County is under attack in favor of creating “neighborhood” schools. In the past, Wake, the largest county in the state, has been held up as an example of diversity. In fact, former Syracuse professor Gerald Grant wrote a book saying there are no bad schools in Raleigh. But a new school board with ties to the ultra-conservative Tea Party now threatens to resegregate the schools.

With that in mind, the people came Saturday morning to the historically black university where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was founded with their handmade signs and their will to make the school board take notice. The multi-ethnic, multi-racial group touted a host of issues, from access to higher education, illegal immigration, prison overcrowding, unemployment—the list goes on.

But what really brought the people out on this day is the situation with schools in Wake County. “I’ve got two kids in the school system now,” said Erica Byrd, who gave me her ‘school disintegration’ button. “I’ve been organizing with other parents, but we have grandparents who are involved and people who used to be students in these schools. There is a lot of solidarity.”

She and others believe that new members of the school board would like to create their own “neighborhood school” and then keep poor children out of them. “Parents like me want to protect the magnet schools,” she said. “We don’t want to see the public school system change.”

At the rally, Ben Jealous, president of the national NAACP, joined the Rev. William Barber II, president of the N.C. chapter. Together, the men energized the audience with their speeches.  Bus after bus arrived, some from as far away as Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and the crowds grew larger. Strangers greeted each other like old friends. Young helped old. More than 90 organizations sent representatives, and some traded notes and stories during the march, their conversations broken only by spontaneous chants. Underlying the sense of urgency, political opposition, fear and concern, was camaraderie—some might say love.

Duke history professor Tim Tyson said Wake County’s success at desegregating made it a target for those who want “private academies for the rich paid for by public money.”

But why North Carolina?

“Obama knocked a hole in the South [by winning North Carolina in 2008],” Tyson said. He explained Nixon’s Southern strategy, the coded language of “forced busing” and “neighborhood schools,” a term George Wallace used to justify segregation. Quite simply, “it is the language of the opposition to Brown v. Board of Education,” he said.

The Wake County school board’s actions have drawn national attention. The comic Stephen Colbert recently used his show to lampoon conservatives on the school board. Also, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has chided the school district for moving toward resegregation. More significantly, the department’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating. You can follow recent news stories about Wake County schools here and here.

Among the marchers, there was no doubt that the school board’s policies signaled a return to the days of Jim Crow. And nobody wanted to see that happen. “This is not the end, this is the beginning,” the Rev. Barber said. “There’s more work to be done when you leave here today. Forward together! Not one step back!”

Jackson is a writer for Teaching Tolerance. 

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