Raleigh, N.C. — About 1,000 people took to downtown Raleigh's streets Tuesday morning to protest the way students will be assigned to Wake County schools under a controversial policy opponents fear will resegregate schools.
The state NAACP and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches of the Eastern District, which was holding a conference in Raleigh, led the protest against the Wake County Board of Education’s planned change to student assignment policy that critics believe will lead to re-segregated schools.
Protesters marched from the Raleigh Convention Center to an intersection in front of the State Capitol building. Five protesters collapsed due to heat, amid temperatures around 90 degrees, and two were transported to WakeMed.
The crowd carried signs saying, "Segregate equals hate" and "History is not a mystery. Separate is always unequal," and shouted chants, such as "2, 4, 6, 8 – they can't make us segregate – it's stupid!"
Stars of the protest were four people arrested on trespassing charges for what they termed a "non-violent protest" at a June 15 school board meeting – State NAACP President Rev. William Barber; Nancy Ellen Petty, a pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh; Timothy Buie Tyson, 50, a research scholar at Duke University; and parent Mary Dobbin Williams, 48.
Speakers quoted Martin Luther King Jr., recalled the days of segregated water fountains and likened the current situation to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education battle.
"Too many prayers were prayed," Barber said. "Too many lives were sacrificed. Too much blood was shed. Too many tears were shed. We can't turn back now."
The first speakers were four current and former Wake County high school students.
"Diversity is not a policy of convenience. It is a policy of necessity," George Ramsey, former student body president of Enloe High School, said.
Barber and other speakers urged participants to next gather at Pullen Memorial Baptist for a prayer vigil, then attend an afternoon meeting of the Wake County Board of Education.
"It is time for the people of Wake County to speak with one voice and to tell our elected leaders, conservative and liberal, that we must keep walking forward," Petty said.
"We have a school board that's set in its own ways. It's not really interested in the people who put them there," protester Joyce Fennell said.
Opponents of the policy change say that moving away from the decade-long policy of busing students will segregate schools and create pockets of poverty. Changing the policy, they believe, will result in basically two school systems – one for the haves and one for the have-nots. That, they say, would violate every student's constitutional right to an equal education.
"We believe deep in our hearts that every child has a right to a high-quality, constitutional education," Barber said. "If they were serious about student achievement, they would leave diversity alone."
"This is not even about neighborhood schools," he continued, saying that supporters of neighborhood schools want schools "where the price of admission is the price of a big mortgage" and where "their children will only mix with the children of their posh neighborhood."
Donna Williams, president of the Northern Wake Republican Club, said that re-segregation has nothing to with changes to student assignment policy.
"Race, segregation has absolutely nothing to do with what is in my heart and mind, and I don't believe that has anything to do with what's in the school board's mind," Williams said.
Supporters of the school board's decision to move to a community-based assignment model say it would place students in schools closer to where they live. Advocates for the policy say it not only gives parents more choices for where their children go to school but that it also will allow more parents to be involved in their education.
The school board majority says the existing system doesn't foster student achievement and that the change is needed.
"In my opinion, the voters spoke loud and clear last November at the polls, and the majority of people voted in this new school board," Williams said. "In America, that's the way we work."
The school system currently bases student assignment on the number of students in a school who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which are federally subsidized and depend on family income.
The goal is to keep that percentage below 40 percent, but proponents of the new assignment policy point to studies that say the policy in place now has actually increased the number of schools with high percentages of students receiving free and reduced lunches.