SELMA, Ala. - Schools closed for a week by a racial protest reopened Tuesday amid heavy security, including 200 National Guardsmen sent by Gov. Guy Hunt. Absenteeism was high but officials reported no classroom problems. About 150 black student protesters boycotted Selma High School and marched around a flagpole chanting "Shut 'em down! No school!" before the opening bell. Another two dozen protesters continued a sit-in at City Hall for a seventh day. Outside some carried signs saying "Equality! Education!"
"This is the first time troopers have been used to ensure that whites could go to school," said Jamie Wallace, executive director of the Selma chamber of commerce.
The protest, prompted by the dismissal of the city's first black school superintendent by white school board members, was less strident than in recent days when throngs of black demonstrators rekindled images of historic Selma marches in the 1960s.
The superintendent, Norward Roussell, who was reinstated last week, called for racial unity Tuesday. But he said he doubted the conflict will end "until there is some movement on my contract," which expires in June.
His supporters contend he is being dismissed because of his race and action he took on behalf of black students, not because of an alleged lack of managerial skills cited in an evaluation. He has held the $80,000 post for 2 1/2 years.
Protesters also want the school board, with six whites and five blacks, to be elected rather than appointed by the City Council, which has five whites and four blacks. The city is 52 percent black.
"It saddens me that children have to be pulled into a political and racial conflict that should have been solved years ago, after the Edmund Pettus Bridge," said Roussell. He referred to the Selma bridge where marchers were clubbed by state troopers in 1965 in what became known as "Bloody Sunday," a milestone in the drive for equal rights.
Hunt agreed to dispatch 200 military police from National Guard reserve ranks to join an undisclosed number of state troopers and local police in guarding Selma's 11 public schools, which closed Feb. 7 amid rising racial tensions. The system, with 5,971 students, is about 70 percent black, and some white parents have moved their children to private schools or other systems during the past week.
"There is no reason for all this security, because they didn't come here to be violent," said Dallas County Commissioner Perry Varner, a black protest leader who was arrested in a melee in the mayor's office last week.
Roussell said about 23 percent of the students were absent Tuesday.
He said he had predicted 30 percent would stay home because of uncertainty over the school environment.
He said 54 students were withdrawn from schools Tuesday, but he believes most will return "once they see we're open and things are going smoothly."
"I want to emphasize that we're not having a mass exodus of whites from our schools," he said.