March 19, 1990 12:00 PM

Selma, Ala., became a civil rights landmark 25 years ago when state troopers brutally beat hundreds of voting-rights demonstrators who were heading for Montgomery, the state capital. Fifteen days later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. successfully led thousands of protesters on the 55-mile march. Now, even as the historic confrontation is commemorated, Selma again finds itself beset by racial strife. This time Selma’s school system—integrated in 1970—is the battleground.

At the center of the conflict stands Superintendent of Schools Dr. Norward Roussell, 55, a blunt, dynamic, uncompromising educator who also happens to be black, as are 70 percent of the school system’s 6,000 students. Unanimously appointed by a racially mixed school board in 1987, Roussell was effectively discharged when the present board’s six-member white majority voted last December not to renew his contract, which expires in June. The board’s five black members, all of whom voted to retain Roussell, walked out in protest.

Previously, a biracial citizens committee had praised Roussell’s administration as “functioning most effectively and efficiently.” But a subsequent school board evaluation, which white members cited as a reason for his dismissal, described him as “dictatorial” and “abrasive.” Roussell saw their verdict as a racial affront. “When a black takes a stand, you’re ‘dictatorial,’ ” he says. “When you’re aggressive, you’re ‘abrasive.’ There’s a different standard for looking at black personalities in a leadership role.”

In fact Roussell had not been universally popular even among blacks. In a 1988 poll of Selma’s teachers, half of whom are black, the majority complained of declining morale. But after the board’s vote, the black community rallied to his side, picketing city hall. The board responded by firing Roussell outright Feb. 2. Although it reversed itself and restored him to his post four days later, by then tempers were flaring, and fistfights broke out among students. The board voted to close the schools, and for five days 150 black students sat in at Selma High until Roussell talked them into leaving. The schools reopened Feb. 13 under the protection of 200 National Guardsmen. Says school guidance counselor Otelia Moss: “This place looked like Vietnam.”

Since then, a sort of calm has prevailed, but 274 white students have left the system for other schools. The turmoil has exposed the fragile nature of race relations in Selma. “There’s been an uneasy truce here for the last 25 years,” says Roussell. “It didn’t take much to cause what’s happening right now.”

An Air Force veteran and a native of New Orleans who worked as an associate superintendent there before his hiring in Selma, Roussell gets good grades from all quarters for pushing through a budget that spruced up Selma’s dilapidated classrooms and bought new science equipment and $250,000 worth of computers. More controversial was his decision to do away with a tracking system that ostensibly grouped students by aptitude but in fact, blacks charged, almost exclusively put whites at the top. “The school buildings were integrated, but the classrooms were segregated,” says attorney Rose Sanders, a black parent. Observes black school board member Sheila Okoye: “When he did away with the tracking, that was the beginning of the trouble.”

The trouble, for now, has moved from the streets to the courts: Roussell has filed a $10 million racial-discrimination suit against the school board, but his career in Selma will probably soon be over. He hopes to take his wife, Joan, and 10-year-old daughter, Melanie, and find a superintendency elsewhere. “I’m pleased by the community support, but I don’t want them to rehire me because of pressure,” he says. In any case, the community’s mobilization is not really about him, he maintains. “It’s a loud message that parents want their children to be well educated,” he says, “and they don’t want anything standing in the way of that.”

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