Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Black teens end occupation of Selma school

SELMA, Ala. - About 150 black teen-agers ended their five-day occupation of Selma High School Monday, and officials prepared to reopen the city's 11 public schools amid heightened racial tension brought on by the firing of the city's first black school superintendent. Several hours after the students gave up their protest, Mayor Joe Smitherman announced from the steps of City Hall that school would resume at the normal time today with police protection, if necessary.

However, late Monday more than 100 black students who took part in the sit-in voted to march to the high school when it reopened today, and said they wouldn't attend classes.

As Smitherman spoke, he was jeered by about 30 black parents, who had staged a sit-in at City Hall while the youths were demonstrating at the high school.

"No contract, no school, no contract, no school," the crowd at City Hall shouted at Smitherman, referring to its demand that school Superintendent Norward Roussell's contract be renewed.

Smitherman, who has been mayor of Selma since the days when civil-rights protesters often were clubbed by police, had sought a federal court injunction to force the students to end their occupation of the high school and the adults to leave City Hall.

But U.S. District Judge Charles Butler rejected the mayor's request late Monday and said he would reconsider the matter if continued protesting disrupts City Hall and the schools.

The current hostility grew out of a decision last December by the white-controlled School Board not to renew Roussell's contract when it expires June 30. Hired in 1987, Roussell was criticized by the board's six white members as "dictatorial" and "indecisive."

After the decision, the board's five black members resigned in protest, and black parents charged that Roussell was sacked because he had worked to change a scholastic placement system that regularly prevented qualified black students from taking advanced classes.

"The district's tracking system is the most dangerous enemy to the future of our children," said Rose Sanders, a lawyer and activist. "The students see this as the issue of the 1990s. We got a false sense of integration in the 1960s. The students are in the same school building. But they're not getting the same education."

The firing also fueled another political issue that has frustrated black parents here for years. They want the composition of the school board changed to give blacks the majority. The Selma School District has 6,000 students, 70 percent of whom are black.

In January, students twice staged boycotts of classes to protest Roussell's firing.

Two weeks ago, the board voted to remove Roussell immediately, and that brought simmering tensions to a boil.

Last Monday, Sanders and three others were arrested after a scuffle at City Hall. The ensuing turmoil forced closure of two schools, and city officials ordered the rest closed the next day.

To ease tension, the board reinstated Roussell until his contract expires in four months. But the students were not satisfied, and about 150 of them began occupying Selma High.

With schools closed, tempers of black and white parents flared over the weekend. Black parents staged two marches, while their white counterparts angrily demanded that the mayor not give in to what they called "mob rule."

Roussell met with the students Monday morning and persuaded them to end their occupation of the school.

"He told us he would be fired again if he didn't get us out of the school," said Malika Sanders, 16, Rose Sanders' daughter. "If we let that happen, that part of the war would be lost."