The Common Good

How William J. Barber Saved Wake County Schools

February is Black History month. In public schools and community centers across the United States, Black History month means that the busts of presidents on January's bulletin boards have been replaced by images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. As a nation, we pause to recall our terrible history of race-based slavery and the incredible struggle for liberation and human dignity that this injustice inspired. But we often overlook the role that faith played in this struggle. Nevertheless, history has a way of inserting itself in the present. The radical faith that inspired prophetic leadership from Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King, Jr., is now igniting a contemporary civil rights movement in North Carolina, led by the Rev. William J. Barber.

First, a bit of background: In Wake County, North Carolina, a new school board backed by national tea party conservatives spent the past year working toward a 'neighborhood schools' plan designed to end bussing and do away with race and class as determining factors in students' school assignments. This plan replaces the integration policies that Wake County implemented 35 years ago, more than 20 years after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. 'Separate but equal' was illegal for a generation before it was abolished in North Carolina.

But even though it came slowly, change did come to North Carolina. In 1976, Wake County instituted a policy that merged Raleigh city and Wake County schools, creating a diverse school system that was celebrated as a national model. In 2009, University of Syracuse professor Gerald Grant published Hope and Despair in the American City with the subtitle, 'Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.' That same year, Wake County citizens reported 94.5 percent satisfaction with their schools in a school board-commissioned survey.

Despite all of this, Wake County's school board has moved forward with their plans to create a neighborhood school system, hiring a new superintendent from out of state when the former superintendent resigned in protest. The board's decisions have sparked the expected political debate between left and right. They've also drawn the attention of national news stories, even showing up on Comedy Central's Colbert Report. But, like our conventional memory of Afro-American history, most reports on the controversy in Wake County have overlooked the prophetic leadership of Rev. William Barber.

When Barber was arrested with three others at a Wake County School Board meeting last summer, the action was identified as an extreme form of political protest. Acting in his role as president of the state chapter of the NAACP, Barber calmly articulated the concerns of North Carolina's minority citizens, explaining that an extreme situation had demanded nonviolent direct action. When he went head-to-head with school board member John Tedesco on CNN, Barber stuck to the facts, appealing to educational research and the school board's own bi-laws.

This public face of the debate, however, did not reveal the David and Goliath proportions of the struggle behind the scenes. While Tedesco and his Republican majority colleagues have been backed by national tea party conservatives and their money (to the extent that some of them have not, like school board members elsewhere, continued in their previous employment), Barber has led a state-wide grassroots campaign while keeping his day job as pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Identifying re-segregation as a growing problem more than five years ago, Barber began building the HKonJ coalition of more than 100 state and community organizations committed to bringing the people's agenda to the NC State Legislature the second weekend of February each year. On February 12, the 102nd anniversary of the NAACP, the coalition expects more than 10,000 people from across North Carolina to march on Raleigh.

In an era when political campaigns are largely determined by which side can raise the most money, how do we account for a grassroots civil rights movement of this proportion? Half a century after the Brown decision, some might say that integrated schools are so fixed in America's conscience that our nation would never allow public schools to go back. Yet, without the tireless organizing of a pastor in North Carolina, one of our nation's best school systems might have re-segregated without much objection.

At the Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, supporters of the HKonJ coalition gathered last week for an interfaith mass meeting. After testimony from community leaders, students and parents, Rev. Barber stood to address the group. He reviewed the facts, re-stated the NAACP's position, and rallied the crowd with the movement's mantra: "Foreword ever

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