RALEIGH — Civil rights leaders are working with some of the state's largest and most influential church groups to bring thousands of people to Raleigh on July 20 to protest the end of Wake County's socioeconomic school diversity policy.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, has organized a wide range of church groups that have historically been involved in civil rights and social justice issues to oppose the move to neighborhood schools in Wake County. Using language heavy with religious overtones and accompanied by a comparison between ending the diversity policy and the old Jim Crow segregation laws, speakers at a news conference Tuesday at the state Capitol argued that they had the moral high ground in the fight.
"We're here today to fight against something that is extremely evil," said the Rev. John Mendez on behalf of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, whose 400,000 members represent the largest black denomination in the state. "We would not be here today if evil was not pervasive. But there is something evil because it is divisive."
In addition to the General Baptist State Convention, the NAACP also announced Tuesday that the group had the backing of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and the N.C. Council of Churches, a coalition of 16 Christian denominations and a handful of independent churches. The Eastern North Carolina district of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church had previously announced it was backing the protest.
The various religious groups, along with secular organizations, hope to generate a crowd for a mass march in downtown Raleigh that will culminate in a protest at the July 20 school board meeting.
The event Tuesday ended with closing remarks from the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, second vice president of the state NAACP.
Gatewood, who previously had called school board Chairman Ron Margiotta a "white racist," held up a sign showing white and black water fountains from days of segregation.
"We're saying no to Jim Crow," Gatewood said. "We can't go back."
But Steve Noble, chairman of Raleigh-based Called2Action, a conservative Christian group, said that accusing board majority members of being racists and questioning whether their actions are evil without knowing their hearts is un-Christian behavior. His group backed the four members who were elected last fall.
"This smells of politics," Noble said Tuesday. "This is not a biblical approach to a problem."
After ending the diversity policy this spring, a school board committee was charged with dividing the county into several community assignment zones designed to send children to schools nearer their homes.
Margiotta, a member of Called2Action, questioned the motivation of those supporting the march. He argued the diversity policy didn't help minority and poor students, noting their low test scores and graduation rates.
"Why didn't these people go after the Wake County school system before for the poor performance under the diversity policy?" Margiotta said Tuesday.
Supporters of the discarded diversity policy have been urging clergy members of different faiths to join them in their fight. So far, they've been backed by a coalition of mainline Protestant churches and African-American denominations - the same groups that were active at the height of the civil rights era.
The Rev. Michael Hunn, speaking on behalf of the 50,000 member Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, compared the biblical story of the good Samaritan who helped a person in need with the diversity policy encouraging people to see the whole county as their neighborhood.
"We do our children a great disservice if we teach them that in America your neighbor is the person who has what you have, who looks like you look, lives where you live and drives what you drive," said Hunn, a parent of a student at a magnet school.
But Noble, of Called2Action, said God intended parents and not the school system to teach children who are their neighbors.
"God's rationale for government was not for it to become our savior," Noble said.
Staff writer Yonat Shimron contributed to this report.
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