Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Let’s Talk About Race in Montgomery, Alabama

We often dance around race in Montgomery, the Cradle of the Confederacy and home of the Civil Rights Movement. Now, however, our city is again divided largely along racial lines regarding the fate of our black school superintendent, Dr. Carlinda Purcell.

I arrived at 5:05 p.m. for the community forum prior to the regular board of education (BOE) meeting to find the small auditorium already nearly at capacity. Folding metal chairs were occupied mostly by supporters of the embattled superintendent who had been told be there at 5 p.m. for the 6 p.m. meeting. I managed to get a seat on the back row. Directly in front of me were two of the world’s best-behaved kids who sat quietly doing their homework for over three hours.

Exactly 10 community members spoke before the board. These ranged from school advocate K. T. Brown who is a kind of black Helen Thomas of the board meetings since she’s always the first speaker. Boy was she ticked off. Mostly about not be let in right away because of the crowd. After that, she settled down to make her point and questioned the black community about its lack of outrage over recent murders. “There’s a lot of work you should be doing,” she said.

A white guy named Andy asked for us to “cool down the war talk.” Then directing his comments to Dr. Purcell he challenged, “Make the evaluation public.” The BOE had earlier requested Dr. Purcell give them all the materials related to her recent evaluation and she refused. That’s when three white and two black BOE members voted to terminate her contract over the objections of two black members, and this whole mess started.

A black mother got up to relate how her son told her kids couldn’t focus and were “napping in class” and that there was a fight and that there were no textbooks. She called on the BOE to visit the schools unannounced and ended by comparing Dr. Purcell to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Another white guy, Scott Taylor, urged us to let the board handle the matter. Kathy Sternenburg was concerned about the image of the community and that this issue was too focused on one individual.

The pastor of the Mt. Zion Church asked, “Are we better or worse because of Dr. Purcell? Are we making progress—that’s the issue?” Hershel Mann, who is black, said to the parties, “You should have used a different method.” Another reverend said, “We are in warfare,” and questioned “Why right now?” A recent high school graduate who didn’t have a math or English teacher for part of the year and had trouble getting her diploma said, “Get our minds out of the cotton field.” Ella Bell who serves on the state board of education rapped up the comments by emphasizing progress in some areas.

I stayed for over an hour of the regular BOE meeting where the members recognized a long-time civil rights icon in Montgomery, Johnnie Carr. Mrs. Carr’s son, she proudly pointed out, had been one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit to desegregate the schools. Then, the board conducted more mundane business like talking about a flea infestation problem at one of the schools, which had the audience giggling like a bunch of schoolgirls. And one member wanted to know why we didn’t have any local vendors bidding on cabbage for the lunch program. I sat through a long presentation heavy on statistics but left as an administrator commenced to give a history of the ACT. Who in their right minds would want to be on a school board?

I question why I feel the way I do about this issue. I ask myself, “Is it because I'm white?” that I think the best thing would be for Dr. Purcell to resign. I hope not. And yet as I sat in the meeting last night surrounded by a mostly black crowd (I counted about 12 white people excluding media, board members and system employees), I wondered if any of those supporters had asked themselves, “Am I supporting her because she is black?”

What is the truth? We need to ask ourselves. We desperately need to have this conversation as a community. When are we going to do it? The black community is led by politicians who seem to enjoy posturing more than solving problems. Whites spend time on forums and call-in radio shows but fail to show up for an important public meeting about the future of our public school system.

When are we going to realize that if we live in this city, the success of the school system is important? It's important to provide a decent education. I was astounded to hear that the 7-12 grade dropout rate is 40 per cent. When are we going to realize that we will pay in one way or the other?


Tim said...

It is obvious and no secret that America's education system is falling apart by the seams. The blame lies at the feet of many, primarily at Congress and those of us not willing to stand up and fight for education, and then there are those that do fight, but it has nothing to do with education, but with their own political agenda.

Racial issues are a difficult thing, even in this day and age, when we should be moving further away from it, however we just seem to be going at it from a different but similar angle.

I never attribute much towards Hollywood or actors, however, when asked what would begin to change the race issues in the United States, Morgan Freeman answered, "Stop talking about each other as races."

Sheila said...

Thanks, Tim. I wish people could come together for the greater good for I truly believe no matter what our color or religion, we are more alike than different. Instead, we keep finding ways to set ourselves apart from each other. Women or men, black or white, Christian or Muslim, old or young, gay or not, republican or democrat.