RALEIGH, N.C. – In the annals of desegregation, Raleigh is barely a footnote.
Integration came relatively peacefully to the North Carolina capital. There was no “stand in the schoolhouse door,” no need of National Guard escorts or even a federal court order.
Nearly 50 years passed — mostly uneventfully, at least until a new school board majority was elected last year on a platform supporting community schools.
The result has been turmoil.
The superintendent resigned in protest. A coalition of residents and civil rights groups filed suit. Months of rallies, news conferences and candlelight vigils against the feared “resegregation” of the state’s largest school district culminated in the recent arrests of four activists for refusing to vacate board members’ chairs.
Locals are lecturing Northern transplants about the Jim Crow past; white school board members are quoting Brown v. Board of Education to the NAACP.
“We’re not going to sit idly by while they turn the clock back on the blood, sweat and tears and wipe their feet on the sacrifices of so many that have enabled us to get to the place we are today,” says the Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the state NAACP chapter and one of the four protesters arrested for trespassing at the June 15 board meeting.
But John Tedesco, part of a new board majority, says it’s the NAACP and others who are “trying to play with the old ’60s playbook for rules for radicals” to preserve a policy that is no longer needed, and wasn’t working anyway.
“This isn’t 1960,” he says.
It’s not. But in 1960, when desegregation first came to the Raleigh city schools, there was no pitched battle.
In September of that year, 7-year-old William Craig Campbell — whose janitor father was head of the local NAACP chapter — braved a gantlet of spit and epithets and walked into the Murphy Public School.
Despite petitions by 400 parents opposing desegregation as “not in the best interests” of white children, Campbell remained; one day, he would become mayor of Atlanta. Raleigh city schools integrated gradually, and relatively quietly.
Wake County was another story.
Between 1968 and 1976, Raleigh’s white population dropped by 11 percent, and this “white flight” turned areas just outside the Beltline encircling Raleigh into what one educator called “trailer city.” A 1968 editorial in The News & Observer warned that Raleigh was in danger of becoming a “little Chicago … with hostile black consciousness and separatism growing with resegregation.”
A proposal to merge the two districts was put to a referendum in 1973, and was defeated by a 3-1 margin. But three years later, the two systems were joined by an act of the state legislature.
Over the years, the united school district tried to integrate in all sorts of ways. Students were bused into town from county neighborhoods. All sixth graders were sent to four downtown centers. A network of magnet schools was established, though by the 1980s, most of those bused were minorities from downtown.
By the 1990s, the federal courts began issuing rulings discouraging forced racial integration. So at the beginning of 2000, in an effort to head off a lawsuit, the board adopted new diversity standards, replacing race with income. Under the policy, the goal was to have no school with more than 40 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch, or more than a quarter scoring below grade level.
With 140,000 students in 160 schools, Wake County was the largest of about 70 districts across the nation using socio-economic status to maintain diversity. The system was considered a model for those looking for a way around race-based assignment scheme rejected by the courts.
“It (the Wake County system) really was a beacon, a flag around which more and more people were rallying as they saw the positive effects of this,” says sociologist Gerald Grant, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University and author of the book “Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.”
But some parents grew tired of sending their children off on long bus rides. Others said the policy may have brought whites and blacks together, but it wasn’t really helping blacks educationally.
And there are those who say people forgot how bad the bad old days were.
“For folks who were there and lived through it, there’s a real sense of a collective forgetting, a collective amnesia,” says James Leloudis, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was in high school when the county system integrated. “There is a kind of tragic disremembering.”
Part of the story is that Wake County is increasingly populated by people who did not grow up here and do not feel the tug or burden of that history. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of Wake County’s residents were born outside North Carolina.
“The population shift is HUGE,” says Grant, who briefly taught at a Raleigh high school while researching his book. “You had folks moving down there from Lexington, Mass., and buying a $275,000 house, and they thought a white school came with it. But when they got down there, they found their kids were getting on a bus.”
At a recent conference at North Carolina State University, Grant jokingly told supporters of the diversity policy that their biggest mistake was that they “didn’t build the gates on all the roads leading to Raleigh to keep all those damn Yankees out of here” — people like New York native Tedesco, one of four new board members chosen in an election last fall that saw just 8 percent turnout.
“They were well coordinated, well funded,” says Grant. “They got their message out, and they gathered the discontented.”
Immediately after taking office, the new 5-4 majority began dismantling the old diversity plan. The response was equally immediate. In February, Superintendent Del Burns — who started as a special education teacher in 1976 and had led the district since 2006 — resigned.
“It is clear to me that I cannot, in all good conscience, continue to serve,” he said.
Supporters of the old assignment policy sued to have the board’s March 23 vote overturned, alleging open meetings violations. A judge dismissed the suit, but the plaintiffs have appealed.
On June 15, when the board rejected Barber’s demand for 45 minutes to address the full panel, he and three others occupied the board chamber. The only way they would leave, they said, was in handcuffs.
Following their release, the newly dubbed “Raleigh 4” published an open letter titled “Thoughts While we were Being Handcuffed, and Processed at the Wake County Jail on June 15 after Engaging in an Act of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience” — a direct allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“There is a tragedy unfolding in Wake County, but it is not confined to Wake County … ,” the letter read. “The shadow of resegregation is falling across the state of North Carolina and the nation.”
The Wake Education Partnership released a study in February arguing that any assignment plan which relies on sending children to their closest school “would quickly create dozens of capacity problems.”
“If all of today’s students were assigned to their closest schools, for example, about two dozen buildings would be at 150 percent of capacity,” the group wrote. Such a system would also undermine the magnet system, the group claims, leaving “older neighborhood schools under capacity, disproportionately poor or both.”
Tedesco counters with a University of Georgia study, presented in May, that found the number of schools not meeting the district’s diversity goals had actually tripled during the past decade. The researchers blamed the trend on a lack of political will and an explosive growth rate — as many as 7,000 new students a year — that made it difficult to follow the policy.
Board Chairman Ron Margiotta says the protests, lawsuits and candlelight vigils are “an attempt to circumvent the will of the people in this county.” But opponents point to a board-sponsored survey that showed more than 90 percent of parents were satisfied or “very satisfied” with their children’s’ school assignments.
The dispute has become vitriolic — and personal.
A columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh recently called Margiotta and Tedesco “a couple of carpetbagging Northerners.” And Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker referred to the board majority as “people who are not from the area, who don’t share our values,” and announced the formation of a group to ensure that any new student assignment plan doesn’t violate the state constitutional guarantee of a sound education.
The NAACP’s Barber admits busing supporters were caught napping last fall. But with five seats — including Margiotta’s — up for grabs next year, they are determined to keep up the heat to counter what “the anti-diversity, right-wing, tea party-sympathizing, resegregationist caucus is doing in Wake County.”
Margiotta says opponents are judging him and the others on a plan that is at least year from being finalized. And he says they are attributing motives to him with no way of knowing what’s in his heart.
“Segregation is something that’s a foreign word to me, something I’ve never lived through or have any understanding of,” says the New Jersey native, who moved to the area about a decade ago.
Pittsburgh native Patrice Lee and her family moved 11 years ago from Jacksonville, Fla., to the town of Cary — whose name, locals joke, is really an acronym for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.” During that time, she says she has watched in frustration as test scores and graduation rates for low-income students declined.
“That policy was not accomplishing the educational purpose,” says Lee, co-founder of the group WakeCARES. “It was accomplishing a social purpose. And the social purpose was to have diversity in schools.”
Lee, who is white, has three children who currently attend magnet schools about 24 miles away. She and others who support the board’s actions are tired of being labeled as racists.
“When you don’t have the facts on your side and you don’t have the truth on your side, you throw a trump card and fake it,” says Lee, who has another son who recently graduated from Wake schools and a fifth set to enter kindergarten next year. “It’s become a circus.”