RALEIGH — On a day that promised political drama about the dismantling of the Wake County schools diversity policy, about a thousand people took to the streets in the sweltering heat for a march and rally that culminated in arrests reminiscent of the civil rights era.
The opposition to the school board majority, which has scrapped the policy of busing for diversity in favor of neighborhood-based schools, attracted religious leaders, students, parents, labor organizers and others from the Triangle and beyond. They framed the issue as a step backward to a time when schools were segregated.
A few hours after the late-morning march and rally, the school board, which was not scheduled Tuesday to take up items directly related to the majority's neighborhood-schools strategy, was stymied by the crescendo of criticism and the disruption of chanting protesters.
By day's end, 19 people were arrested, all of them either outside or inside the administrative building on Wake Forest Road where the school board held its meeting. Among those charged were two rally organizers: the Rev. Nancy Petty of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and state NAACP Chairman the Rev. William Barber, both accused of second-degree trespassing.
The march and rally on Fayetteville Street, downtown blocks rich with history just beyond the state Capitol, strongly echoed the 1960s-era clergy-led civil rights marches with placard-waving, hymn singing and arrests for civil disobedience.
The Rev. David Forbes, pastor of Christian Faith Baptist Church in Raleigh and a longtime civil rights champion, angrily recalled a time 50 years ago when theaters,businesses and water fountains on Fayetteville Street were segregated.
" 'Neighborhood schools' is an anachronism, a false word, for turning the clock back," said Forbes, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a powerful force that fought alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "This is not a Raleigh problem; this is a national problem. This is a world problem, wherever bigotry is."
Forbes was one of more than a dozen speakers who turned out Tuesday morning to rally Wake County residents and others to take more than a passing interest in what is going on in the schools.
To chants of "Forward Ever, Backwards Never," each speaker urged the crowd to fight for schools that embrace diversity and offer students from all neighborhoods an equal shot at a quality education. They borrowed language from the Bible and from historic figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, noted black scholar W.E.B. Dubois and Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad, a vast network of people who helped slaves escape to free states.
Many speakers characterized a neighborhood schools policy as one too entrenched in individualism and selfish goals out of touch with broader social needs.
"This gathering is about calling our community to a larger purpose than serving ourselves," said Bishop Al Gwinn of the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, one of Wake County's largest religious groups.
Advocates of the board majority's push toward neighborhood schools argue that their intentions are not trying to resegregate a system whose diversity policy stood as a national model. Instead, they say, they want to revisit a time when children attended schools close to home, making it easier for parents to participate in programs and volunteer in classrooms.
But people at the rally didn't buy those assessments.
"We went through this 40 years ago, and here we are repeating it again in 2010," said Linda Sugg, 59, a Raleigh resident.
School board members who make up the majority have described critics of their new direction as mostly outside agitators gravitating toward the spotlight.
But Barber and others say their ranks include parents of Wake County public school students and their children.
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