The Ultimatum 

Black leaders demanding resegration rollback—or else

Black leaders demanding resegration rollback—or else

This week's elections will produce new school board members who might find reason to question their commitment to public service right away. As a first order of business, they'll face this exciting choice: Either piss off white constituents, not to mention the Chamber of Commerce, or outrage the city's black leadership and invite a lawsuit that could drag Nashville back under a judge's desegregation decree. Good times.

Since the school board thumbed its nose at critics a month ago by voting 5-4 to rezone students and end the busing of hundreds of black children to white suburbia, the NAACP has been holding strategy sessions with prominent ministers and attorneys.

On Monday, an inflammatory letter went to school board chair Marsha Warden. In it, NAACP president Marilyn Robinson and attorney Walter Searcy compare what they call the "racial rezoning plan" to a hangman's gallows for black children and demand that the board reverse itself.

"We draw no comfort in the fact that the repudiated doctrine of 'separate but equal' as manifest in the promise of more resources for inner city schools has become a central plank in the gallows that is now being masqueraded as the latest and greatest solution to the abysmal performance of too many of our students," the letter states.

The letter doesn't say it but, according to one source who has attended the NAACP meetings, black leaders have already decided that, if rebuffed by the board, they'll sue the city for discrimination.

"There's no question they will sue," this source tells the Scene.

Robinson is less categorical (for public consumption anyway), but she says, "We're going to exercise every option we have. We're not going away."

Parents already have come forward to serve as potential plaintiffs, and the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund is compiling a file on the case. Among the documents in the file: memos from ousted superintendent Pedro Garcia that paint a picture of business people conspiring secretly with school board members to remove as many black children as possible from upscale Hillwood and Hillsboro in the hopes of reversing white flight.

Black leaders think the rezoning plan would roll back decades of racial progress and doom the city's poor, black children to a substandard education in segregated schools. The school board has promised to spend an extra $6 million a year to improve those black schools, but officials admit they can't guarantee the funding.

The present school board meets once more before its term ends, but no one expects any new action on the rezoning plan then.

"We're hoping for some form of reconciliation so that we can feel happy and not disenfranchised," Robinson says. " 'Separate but equal' didn't work out that well in the past. This rezoning plan is a total contradiction of what the NAACP stands for."

Whether any compromise is possible is an open question. The city's white liberals, who might help the two sides come together, have been conspicuously silent. Mayor Karl Dean at first said nothing, then voiced support for the rezoning plan and lately has suggested he might ask the new school board to reconsider parts of it.

"The white liberals in this city are taking a pass," says the Scene's source who has been meeting with black leaders. "They're making different excuses, but the white liberal community in town seems to not care. These are the people who ought to be out there leading the charge, I would think. It's an outrage, it really is. This is 50 years of progress we've made on desegregating schools that's getting ready to be totally flushed down the drain."

The Rev. Tex Thomas, one of the city's most politically active black ministers, isn't surprised. "The white folk see this as a black fight," he says. "We're used to that."

What are the liberals' excuses? Metro Council member Emily Evans, who represents much of Hillwood, says she might have spoken out against resegregation but, she thought, what's the point? The state is about to take control of the school district anyway because too many students are failing to meet achievement standards under the No Child Left Behind law.

"I speak my conscience on a lot of things," Evans says. "I find the notion of segregation morally repugnant. I'd never advocate it in a zillion years. On the other hand, whatever's going on with the school board is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The state is in control, and the state control will continue to expand, and we'll see where we end up. But I think a lot of those debates are moot."

Jason Holleman, another council member who represents parts of Hillwood, makes the same we'll-see-where-we-end-up argument. But the state Education Department has made a point of staying out of the rezoning fight, letting the school board decide what to do. So it's hard to see the logic these council members say they're following.

One black leader who asks not to be named offers a more likely reason for the silence of the white liberals: "They're scared, aren't they? They don't want everybody to be pissed off at them. They want to be in good favor with their friends, whoever they go to church with or go to soccer matches with. But how can Nashville be a progressive city and then want to resegregate schools?"

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