RALEIGH — Both sides in the contentious debate about the direction of the Wake County schools on Tuesday claimed the heritage of the 1960s civil rights movement to advance their causes.
Members of the school board majority, who have recently ditched the district's decades-old policy of busing students for diversity, said Tuesday they want to explore renaming William G. Enloe High School after an African-American. They said they were responding to recent comments by their opponents about the racial policies of the Raleigh mayor whose name the school bears.
The suggestion about Enloe drew opposition from a UNC-Chapel Hill historian and from contemporaries who called Enloe a figure of his day who worked over time to shed Raleigh's segregated past.
Also Tuesday, the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, and the Rev. Nancy Petty, senior pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, issued a written declaration tying opposition to neighborhood schools in Wake to the legacy of slain civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Their letter referred back to King's famed "Letter from Birmingham Jail" from 1963.
"There is a role for everyone in this moral and political struggle, whether that is praying for justice, gathering information, speaking out to our churches and communities, organizing our precincts, marching in the streets, or even going to jail," Barber and Petty wrote in their letter.
This pointed political theater is taking place as Wake County, the state's largest school district, is engaged in a major debate about how to assign its 140,000 students. During the past few months, the school board majority has systematically eliminated all references to maintaining socioeconomic diversity in school assignment. The school board is now at work on an assignment system that would divide the county into zones designed to allow children to go to schools close to their homes.
Supporters of the old diversity policy have escalated their opposition with protests and arrests. During last week's school board meeting, Duke University historian Tim Tyson argued that integration in Raleigh was achieved despite great opposition. He specifically cited statements made by William G. Enloe, Raleigh's mayor from 1957 to 1963, pointing to a 1960 New York Times story about sit-ins in which Enloe called it "regrettable that some of our young Negro students would risk endangering these relations by seeking to change a long-standing custom in a manner that is all but destined to fail."
Seizing on Tyson's remarks, school board chairman Ron Margiotta and a key board ally, John Tedesco, said they will consider renaming Enloe. Margiotta said they might want to rename the school, which opened in 1962, after Clarence Lightner, Raleigh's first and only black mayor, or Vernon Malone, the black chairman of the first school board after the merger of Raleigh and Wake schools in 1976. In a separate act, Raleigh city officials say a stalled public safety center project will bear Lightner's name if built.
"I wouldn't want to name a school after a segregationist," Margiotta said. "We could certainly honor an African-American."
Tyson said he was skeptical of the school board majority's motives for looking at renaming Enloe.
"They're probably just playing politics," Tyson said.
About Mayor Enloe
Margiotta said he has asked Tedesco to review William G. Enloe's history and stance on civil rights issues. Enloe High, now a magnet school in East Raleigh, has been a hotbed for opposition to the elimination of the diversity policy. Students and parents there fear the neighborhood schools plan will harm magnet schools, which feature special academic programs originally designed to attract suburban students to inner-city schools.
School board policy prevents Wake from naming schools after people. Schools such as Enloe that predated the policy were grandfathered in. Tedesco said he wants the board's policy committee to discuss Thursday ending the ban so that Enloe could be renamed.
As Raleigh mayor, Enloe presided over a transition from a fully segregated city to one headed in a more moderate direction. He was the manager of a pair of segregated downtown theaters, but in 1963 he formed a Committee of 100 aimed at easing the path to integration in Raleigh.
Jim Leloudis, a UNC-Chapel Hill history professor, said Enloe was a "moderate" for the times who had to be pushed on integration. But Leloudis pointed out that Raleigh, unlike other Southern cities, didn't use fire hoses on protesters, as was done in Birmingham, Ala.
Casper Holroyd, last chairman of the Raleigh city school board before the merger, said Tuesday he would oppose the idea of renaming Enloe after nearly half a century.
"There's no reason for that," Holroyd said.
The Enloe talk came as supporters of Wake's old diversity policy made their most direct effort Tuesday to argue that they're carrying on the legacy of the civil rights movement.
In their letter, Barber and Petty play on King's famed "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written in 1963 on the margins of a newspaper, while King was spending eight days in solitary confinement for violating an anti-protest ban.
Barber and Petty called their letter "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."
Police charged Barber, Tyson, Petty and activist and Wake schools parent Mary Williams with second-degree trespassing when they refused to leave the lectern during the June 15 school board meeting. Released by a Wake County magistrate after about 90 minutes, they called their actions an act of civil disobedience.
"We must utilize our moral authority and pursue our legal rights, and we must take nonviolent action as our conscience directs us," Barber and Petty wrote, in part.
Tedesco, the school board member, accused Barber and Petty's document of "mocking" King's letter, which he proclaimed as one of his favorite essays.
"It's galling that they would try to compare themselves to great civil right leaders like Dr. King," Tedesco said.
Tedesco has previously drawn criticism for saying that the school board's neighborhood schools plan reflects the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ended legalized segregation.
"Arguing that ending the school system's diversity policy is comparable to the courageous efforts of ending racial segregation is historical heresy," Barber said at a Monday rally at Pullen Memorial.
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