In Selma, Ala., Marchers Again Take to the Streets
People, April 14, 1990
Assignment: Riots erupted after the dismissal of a black school superintendent. Editors wanted a profile of the man and a report on the racial tensions driving the controversy.
Sit-ins, marches, allegations of racism, mass arrests, the chords of "We Shall Overcome" -- last week, you'd have thought it was 1965 again in Selma, Alabama, the year state troopers attacked civil-rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the river and leads into town.
Even as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and U.S. Rep. John Lewis finish plans to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Bloody Sunday next month, racial turmoil has returned to Selma. The fire this time rages in town's public schools.
In February 1987, the Selma Board of Education hired a new system superintendent. Dr. Norward Roussell was experienced: he'd spent 12 years as an assistant and associate superintendent of New Orleans city schools, missing election as the first black superintendent there by one vote in 1986.
He was eloquent, energetic -- and, not far behind on the list of qualifications, Roussell, 55, also was black. Although black students account for 70 percent of the public-school population (and 52 percent of the town as a whole), Selma had never fielded a black superintendent.
What Selma does have is a primarily white school board: of its 11 members, only five are black. The children of the board chairman, in fact, attend one of two all-white private schools (he has said that his wife, from whom he is divorced, made that decision). One of the other white members actually founded one of the private schools. Members of the board aren't even elected; they're appointed by City Council, which is -- you guessed it -- mostly white (five whites, four blacks). No wonder, then, most blacks in Selma hailed the board's hiring of Roussell, at a respectable $80,000 a year, an unprecedented milestone in local government.
But over the ensuing 2 1/2 years, Roussell's relationship with the board soured, and the conflict began to take on a racial complexion, as do many political issues in Selma. Tension began to escalate last July, when board member Edie Jones, who is white, slapped Roussell with an evaluation describing him as "dictatorial" and "abrasive," a supervisor without necessary managerial skills who demanded "blind compliance."
Says Roussell: "There were a few nice spots -- they said I dressed nicely. But they also said I failed to attend the 'Girl of the Year' contest, which isn't even a school function." Roussell claims Jones, who based the evaluation on unsigned forms submitted by board members, simply used the document to vent her own frustrations with Roussell.
Jones did not return phone calls.
On Dec. 21, the school board, citing that evaluation, voted not to renew Roussell's 3-year contract, which expires on June 30. Members voted along racial lines -- blacks for Roussell, and whites against. Angered by the decision, the five black members walked out that night. They have not yet returned, and the six white members have been running the show since.
Pickets materialized the next day at City Hall, shouting slogans at Mayor Joseph T. Smitherman (he has remained in office every term but one since 1964; he was the mayor in 1965, during the Pettus Bridge incident). The demonstrators have turned up there almost every day since, although seldom in large numbers.
On Jan. 3, student and adult protestors staged a one-day school boycott. Roussell signed a warrant for one picketer's arrest. Things might have simmered down, but on Friday, Feb. 2, the six-member board evidently decided to rid itself of a growing nuisance and voted to dismiss Roussell altogether. He was notified that afternoon, and over the weekend the board swore in the principal of Selma High School, F.W. Reece, as acting superintendent.
The reaction was fast and furious. On the following Monday, a scuffle broke out at City Hall as four protestors barged into the mayor's office. After refusing to leave, they were arrested by police. One of them, Rose Sanders -- a black lawyer who, with her husband and daughter, has organized many of the demonstrations -- claimed to have been injured and abused by an arresting policeman. A subsequent investigation upheld the officer. A sit-in began at City Hall.
The next day, Reece resigned his temporary post. Fighting broke out at two schools, which were then closed (Selma High was one of them). On Wednesday, Feb. 7, all 11 public schools were closed amid growing anarchy. Several hundred protestors marched on City Hall, waving banners and yelling "No contract, no school!" and "Get fired up!"
On Thursday, about 150 students, demanding that Roussell's contract be renewed, barricaded themselves in the Selma High cafeteria for what would become a five-day sit-in. They watched "The Color Purple" and discussed Nelson Mandela. The city attorney appealed on Friday to a federal judge in Mobile for a temporary restraining order against further demonstrations; the attorney claimed city government was becoming "paralyzed." Several hundred demonstrators, led by Southern Christian Leadership Conference president the Rev. Joseph Lowery, marched on Smitherman's home that Saturday.
U.S. District Judge Charles Butler denied the restraining order the following Monday afternoon, but by then it didn't matter: Roussell had talked the students into coming out. That morning they marched from Selma High to City hall with a banner that said "We Shall Overcome."
Schools reopened on Tuesday, Feb. 13, and by then Alabama officials were concerned enough to send in 200 National Guardsman to insure order. They were deployed primarily at Selma High, where there was only a small demonstration. "I got out of the car that first day back, and this place looked like Viet Nam," says Otelia Moss, director of guidance counseling for Selma public schools. "I didn't know what to expect. None of us did." Twenty-three percent of the system's 6,000 students were absent that day; five percent is normal.
Except for a shouting spree on Wednesday, Feb. 14, in the Selma High cafeteria (11 students were suspended), the schools remained relatively calm throughout the rest of last week. Eleven students have been suspended since the controversy began. About 75 of those who participated in the sit-in and cafeteria sloganeering were allowed to attend "alternative" classes last Friday and Saturday in lieu of suspension.
While the violence may be tapering off, the conflict has just begun. Two black attorneys, Hank Sanders (Rose's husband) and J.L. Chestnut have filed suit in federal court against the board, alleging that the unelected school board is unconstitutional. And on Friday, Roussell himself filed suit against the school board in federal court, alleging violations of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act. He's asking $10 million in damages.
The controversy has as much to do with Selma and the way it's run as it does with Roussell -- who, incidentally, never enjoyed such wide support in the black community until now. He has come to symbolize a promise that many blacks feel has been reneged on over the last 25 years.
Says Moss: "This is Selma, Alabama. A lot of people call it quaint. It **is** quaint -- once a board sits, it doesn't have to be accountable to the town, to anybody."
"Blacks are still distrustful here," says Roussell. "Selma gives the appearance of progress, but when it comes to decisions of government, we're not in the position to make decisions. There are not that many black on governing bodies. There's a black personnel director here, a black director of sanitation there -- you do see some in positions they didn't have in 1965, but not in a position to leverage any power in the city."
From the enormous, decaying antebellum mansions by the river to the shabby row houses of the east side, Selma's 27,000 inhabitants are slipping into three categories: Roussell's supporters, his detractors, and a majority in the middle who are upset that their children were out of school and wish this whole mess would go away. On the advice of its attorney, school board members are refusing comment to the press. Most white residents, in fact, don't want to risk a demonstration in front of their homes.
But some are angry with the way things have been handled. Says Jamie Wallace, president of the local chamber of commerce: "Any community that has a 50-50 racial make-up, you're going to have somebody upset about something most of the time. But when you have to start closing schools -- **that's** a bad situation....People have been frustrated mostly about their children not being in school."
Until Feb. 13, Selma's public schools had never been shut down -- not during the chaos of 1965, and not in 1970, when they were integrated. "It's much worse now," says Moss, who was hired as one of the first black teachers in Selma in the mid-'60s. "We've never had students acting like these having been acting....Remember, they're a different breed now. They're not the same as they were 20 years ago. Parents had more control over their children back then. Now students aren't going to accept just whatever happens. Respect for authority is not taken as a guarantee anymore."
"We tell them about the past, when there was white water and black water, front of the bus and back of the bus -- but they don't understand it. They haven't had to struggle," she laments.
The chaos -- particularly the picture of policemen, county sheriffs, and state troopers massed before the doors of Selma High -- has unnerved many parents. As of yesterday, 244 students had been withdrawn from Selma schools. Only 19 were black. Close to half of the withdrawals come from Westside Junior High, where last Tuesday several dozen adult protestors from the high-school marched through the halls and circled the building, yelling "Not gonna take it no more!" and singing "We Shall Overcome." Teachers shooed frightened students into classrooms, locking the doors.
"It was a frightening experience, especially for kids this age," says Westside Assistant Principal Ann Sanner. "**I** was frightened."
No surprise in Selma that an organization composed primarily of black parents, Best Education Support Team (BEST), would be countered eventually by one composed of whites -- PEST, for Parents Educational Support Team. The derision is intentional. "We don't intend for this to be a white organization," says member Otey Crisman, "but I'm afraid the lines are being drawn that way."
Members of BEST, which is about two years old, have been heavily involved in the protests erupting in wake of the school board's decision not to renew Roussell's contract. Members of PEST, formed two weeks ago as black students barricaded themselves in Selma High, largely support the board's decision -- and they say that whatever one thinks of the board, the schools are the wrong ground on which to fight an essentially political battle.
Insurance salesman John Ingram is typical. When Selma High failed to reopen on Monday, Feb. 12, as Roussell had promised (at that point, he'd been fired), Ingram enrolled his 17-year-old son in a private school in another county. He was worried for his safety.
"Parents, both black and white, are concerned about the children not being able to attend school anymore," he says. "I feel like city officials who are elected and duly appointed deserve the support of the community. But 1,800 children are being prostituted and held hostage by a group of seventy or eighty other children and adults.
"This is not a racially motivated thing," he says. "Being a businessman, my idea is that if a contractual arrangement requires an evaluation at a certain time, there's nothing that says they have to renew the contract....You have to leave these kind of decisions to those appointed to office. The school is no place for a reckoning of the political agenda."
Says Crisman, who has a 10th-grader at Selma High and a third-grader at Cedar Park Elementary (where Roussell's daughter attends school): "The other team has been saying they support public education, but they're doing their best to shut it down....Regardless of politics, you don't shut down the schools. They had people going in to Selma High, pulling kids out of class. Then they marched went to Westside and scared those little 7th- and 8th-graders to death."
In view of Roussell's record, says Crisman, the board made the right decision in letting him go -- but he faults members for not being above board with their concerns. A needs-assessment committee gave the system generally good marks during the accreditation process, says Crisman, but that's not the problem.
"Roussell has had good ideas," says Crisman, "but he has a hard time working with people. Teachers never know if he's coming or going." And many white parents, says Crisman, believe the numbers of blacks regulated to lower level classes in the days of tracking are "exaggerated." PEST is checking older records now to find out.
Crisman points to a survey completed by about 200 teachers in spring 1988, when Roussell had been in office a year. Some 67 percent felt that the administration showed political bias in transferring or terminating teachers; 65 percent said members of the community usually knew a teacher's future status before he or she did; 67 percent believed teachers had been transferred for speaking out on issues; 79 percent did NOT believe their jobs were secure; 69 percent disagreed with the assertion that morale was improving; and 72 percent said long-term decisions were being made hastily. Hardly a ringing endorsement for Roussell.
White parents also charge Roussell with lax discipline. "Most of the marchers around here haven't been adults -- they've been teenagers," says Crisman. "I don't think any group should be encouraging children to break the law."
After the two demonstrations at Selma High, Roussell offered 75 students the option of alternative classes instead of suspension. The vast majority took it. "Dr. Roussell talks a good game, but he's not doing it," says Crisman. "He said any more demonstrators would be dismissed or suspended. But he just took them from the cafeteria into the library and basically did nothing. Yesterday those kids were back in class with permission slips saying that it was an excused absence. How are you going to run a school like that?
"If you're going to have an education in any environment, you've got to have discipline, and that really worries us," says Crisman. Selma High's principal, F.W. Reece, gets high marks from white parents, who say he runs a tight ship; but they believe he's been held in check since Roussell has been superintendent.
Roussell's supporters praise the changes that have transpired since his arrival. In the three years he's been there, the school budget has risen from $15 million to $18 million. That's brought some physical changes: most of the schools gleam with bright coats of paint, carpeting, new desks and tables, maps, science equipment, better lighting. Two weeks ago, about $250,000 dollars worth IBM person computers began arriving in all schools -- some youngsters already are poring over the color monitors, working with IBM's "Writing to Read" program. Space-age stuff for Selma.
Attorney Rose Sanders, who organized BEST and has been fielding most of the demonstrations on Roussell's behalf, says the issue of quality education for blacks was first raised three years ago, when a student complained to her that he could not take algebra. She claims that statistics subsequently showed that 90 percent of whites were "tracked" into level 1 courses, while 90 percent of blacks wound up at levels 2 or 3. Yet level 1 courses were not extraordinary: they were, she says, mostly standard fare. So for the fifteen years since integration, say Sanders, most black children were segregated into inferior instruction. There has been only one valedictorian in that time.
"Dr. Roussell got rid of that system, with our encouragement," says Sanders. "The whites want to keep black children at lower levels, because then white children are able to get a private education at public expense. The school buildings are integrated, but the classrooms are segregated."
The schools, she says, are an appropriate place to voice opposition to what she believes is institutionalized racism. "When we had a problem with voting rights, we went to the Board of Registration," Sanders says. "When it was public accommodation, we went to the restaurants. And now that we have a problem with education, we picket the schools. We have to reclaim our children by reclaiming our schools...In a way, we were worse off with integration."
The demonstrations raging in Selma have changed attitudes, she says, even if Roussell does lose his job. "His job may be history, but this movement is not," she says. "For the first time since I've been in Selma, people are recognizing that their children have been miseducated."
Mayor Joseph T. Smitherman finds it all a little...much. The Sanderses, he contends, have a "strong political machine" and are concerned less with past abuses than upcoming elections. "We are the Voting Rights Act and the Pettus Bridge and all that," he says. "Selma is just set up for demonstrations. It's a magic word with the national media."
Blacks hold several positions, he notes: postmaster general, president of the local junior college, various jobs in the local Social Security office, the Dept. of Human Resources, and in Legal Aid. "That may not be all they want," says Smitherman, "but those were positions once held by whites."
College mathematics professor Sheila Okoye was one of five black members of the Selma Board of Education -- until the Dec. 21 vote against Roussell. She and four others walked out in protest then and have not returned.
"I don't have any idea why the white school-board members voted the way they did," she says. "When he came here, children were being put in classes without regard to their abilities. When he did away with tracking, that was the beginning of the trouble."
Okoye did not fill out an evaluation form last summer on Roussell (she was away on vacation). When she returned, she read through some of unsigned forms. Okoye found that there were always five (the number of white members on the board, minus one on vacation) who rated Roussell lowly. On one of them, a board member had scribbled a note to the effect that Selma wasn't ready for a black superintendent. "When we hired him, [Roussell] was as black as he is today," she says. "When they it doesn't have anything to do with racism, I begin to wonder."
For 16 years, Adrian Goldston, 38, has been teaching at Payne Elementary -- in the same room he sat in as a child. Before getting new furniture this year, says Goldston, "Some of the desks in this room we used when I first starting teaching here. This is the first new furniture in 16 years." He pulls down a new world map -- old one used to show only 48 states -- and spins new globe and accompanying map kit. His fifth-graders alone have $1,200 worth of new science equipment. This week Goldston will be setting up two personal computers for science projects.
"We didn't have anything," he says. "Supplementary materials were most scarce. In the three years Dr. Roussell has been here, I've seen more come into this classroom than in all 16 years before."
Says Thelma Todd, for 20 years a kindergarten teacher at Payne Elementary: "Since Dr. Roussell has been here, we've had more teaching assistants. We now have a pre-kindergarten class...It really has improved so much."
Unbelievably, Selma's school curriculum had never been written down until Roussell arrived, and neither had proficiency standards. All that was left mostly to individual teachers. "That came of the notion that if we had high written standards, the kids would fail them," he says.
Perhaps most important to blacks, Roussell quickly dispatched a "tracking" system whereby students were grouped -- some as early as elementary school -- into three "levels." Black students usually found themselves in the middle or bottom group, seldom the top; thus they seldom took honors or advanced-placement courses once entering the high school. The tracking decisions were made by individual teachers following no particular criteria, and although it had been in place some 20 years, the system had never been officially adopted or supervised by the school board. Now students are grouped by subject (tracked students were uniformly Level 1 or Level 2, for all subjects) and by standardized test scores.
Roussell scoffs at the notion that he has been difficult to deal with while making these changes. "They want a black here, but they don't want a black exercising the authority of the office of the superintendent," he says. "All this business about being dictatorial and abrasive -- when a black takes a stand, you're 'dictatorial.' When you are aggressive, you're 'abrasive.' There's a different standard for looking at black personalities in a leadership role."
The real conflict, says Roussell, pits Selma against its awful past. He believes the superintendency has become a flashpoint for long-simmering frustrations.
"There are lot of good people in Selma, white and black, who don't want to go through this turmoil," says Roussell. "They want to put what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge behind them. There's been an uneasy truce here for the last 25 years. It doesn't take much to cause what's happening right now....The good people here want progress, but they need to come together and that hasn't happened. There are two extreme political groups, white and black, and everybody else gets caught in between."
One of seven children, Roussell grew up in a three-bedroom house on the poor side of New Orleans' Garden District. He was (and is) very close to his identical twin brother, Norman, who is now an administrator at Loyola University -- they attended the same segregated schools, held the same jobs, joined the Air Force together, even went to the same colleges and graduate schools. Reading was an issue in the house: Roussell's father -- who sold vegetables out of a truck, then ran a small bar -- had never gone to school of any sort; his wife taught him to read and write his name. He died when the twins were 8 years old.
The day after high-school graduation, both awoke to find their mother, who finished only the 4th grade, standing over their beds with sack lunches. There wouldn't be any college, she explained; there wasn't enough money. They would have to find jobs. Today.
They did -- digging ditches for gas lines at a public-housing project. Norman and Norward lasted exactly a week. They quit and got jobs at a nearby laundry. They worked there a year, then joined the Air Force and were sent to Korea. Four years later, the Roussells found the money -- most of it from a brother in the Marines and the three daughters, who worked hard to support the family -- to send the twins to college. They enrolled at Dillard in 1956. Roussell got his first job teaching junior high in 1960, and -- save for a four-year stint at the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation in Michigan and two years getting a graduate degree at Wayne State in Detroit -- rose steadily through the New Orleans school bureaucracy.
"Lots of public-school people complain about the obstacles that stop them from getting an education," says Roussell. "I overcame that. I'm a product of a public-school system." It seems an awful long way to have come for this. For Selma.
A dapper man seldom without a cigarette -- he lights up near the Just Say No banners -- Roussell built a house when he arrived, a large brick affair. He lives there with wife Joan, 51, and their 10-year-old daughter Melanie. "She takes it all in stride," he says. "But I think my wife is angry, disappointed -- just disgusted with all that's happened."
It doesn't look like tensions will ease anytime soon. Last night, the four black members of Selma's City Council walked out of the meeting after a debate over Roussell's contract. The superintendent himself already is looking for other jobs.
"Did you drive over the bridge coming here?" he asks. "I never realized it was that high until I moved here. From those pictures in 1965, I thought it was sort of flat and you just walked across."