The setting is Selma, Alabama, and the air is heavy with racial tension. Angry blacks are marching in the streets. Blacks and whites are arguing and scuffling with each other. There are arrests and charges of police brutality. National Guardsmen are patrolling campuses after student unrest kept the schools closed for six days. Protesters are camped outside Mayor Joseph Smitherman's office. Plans are afoot for a 50-mile protest march to the state capital of Montgomery. Sound familiar? Although it's a scene reminiscent of the turbulent 1960s, the events are happening today. They are an eerie reminder that the racial divisions underlined by the civil rights movement are still there, even more so after the backsliding under the Reagan administration.
Selma 1990 shows that "Everything has changed, but nothing has changed," the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, declared Tuesday in Atlanta.
In 1965 Selma became an international symbol of brutal resistance to black voter registration efforts. This time the confrontations were sparked by what some see as a racially motivated attempt to oust Selma's first black school superintendent.
The board's six white members voted in December to let Superintendent Norward Roussell's contract expire in June, calling him an incompetent manager. That prompted a walkout by the board's five black members, and ongoing protests by black parents and students.
White parents say the school closings and student clashes have hurt their children and created concerns for their safety.
Blacks say Roussell was fired because of his efforts to change a tracking system that's seen as a device for keeping blacks segregated within the schools while maintaining privileged treatment for white students. They also are demanding black control of the school system, which is 70 percent black. It's doubtful Selma's white citizens would tolerate it if the current situation were reversed.
Obviously conflicts such as Selma's could be defused if blacks had control of predominantly black school systems. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case. The pattern nationwide is for the established political system to work in favor of continued white control of public schools, even as they grow increasingly black and Hispanic as more whites opt for private schools.
In Selma, where the general population is 52 percent black, observers say whites have maintained a School Board majority by better voter participation in city elections, since the white-majority City Council appoints School Board members. Whites could help matters by agreeing to switch to an elected School Board. And blacks can work to get more of their own to the polls, although in a city that fought black voting tooth and nail, that will take time.
It has been almost 25 years since 4,000 demonstrators overcame a bloody confrontation with state police at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge and marched to Montgomery, and into history as the catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The lesson in Selma, now as then, is that politics-as-usual is the usual culprit in racial conflicts.
Given the sorry history of black treatment in southern school systems, continued white control of a 70 percent black system is a prescription for continued suspicion, mistrust and resentment.