MAXWELL:  Out of step on integration

7/16/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If the NAACP’s 88th annual convention has failed in any way, that failure has come in the organization’s refusal to conduct a forthright debate on its traditional stance on school integration as officials had promised the nation.

During a news conference the day before voting delegates arrived, Myrlie Evers-Williams, board chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Kweisi Mfume, the organization’s president, said that, despite widespread rumors to the contrary, the NAACP will not alter its position on integration in the schools.

Evers-Williams emphasized that journalists, especially the writer of a June 23 article in the New York Times, had misconstrued her earlier remarks on integration.

“There is no new story,” said Evers-Williams, whose oldest child, Darrell Kenyatta, was a petitioner in the 1964 suit that challenged school segregation in Mississippi. “Separate, segregated schools are inherently unequal and will not provide the quality of education needed for the 21st century,” she said. “We owe it to those who sacrificed their blood, sweat and tears to knock down the doors marked “white only.’ ”

No, I and other journalists had not misconstrued Evers-Williams’ earlier comments on integration. She clearly had said she would listen to rank-and-file delegates and perhaps re-evaluate the NAACP’s stance. Apparently, something happened between the time she spoke out and the opening of the convention.

During the same news conference, Mfume, seemingly sensing the appearance of duplicity, weighed in, suggesting that school integration is a complex process that requires more than busing and mixing the races in the classroom. Integration, he said, will occur when segregated housing patterns change and when gaps among incomes are closed.

“Most school kids are bused in America every day,” he said. “The problem is not that they are being bused. It is when you try to integrate the process that it becomes an issue.”

Mfume tried to answer journalists’ charges that he and Evers-Williams were trying to silence delegates who want to return to neighborhood schools or use vouchers. “We believe that stifling discussion limits our ability as an organization to lead,” he said.

Yes, talk of integration and busing is swirling inside and outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. But the NAACP leadership is not taking such talk seriously.

During the keynote address Monday night, Evers-Williams vowed to fight the “rats” who would undermine the organization and who would try to separate black and white people.

While voicing a willingness to discuss other tactics in the quest for integration, she said: “It’s okay to have little skirmishes. It’s okay to disagree. It’s okay to actively debate the issues. It’s okay to wrestle with controversy and conflict.

“But when the dust settles and the winner raises his arms in triumphant victory, let’s make sure that the battle was won because of “civil righting’ and not lost due to infighting.”

During his address on Tuesday morning, Mfume referred to the “rats” Evers-Williams spoke of. But he called them “snakes.”

That afternoon, during a session on vouchers, charter schools and school takeovers, Randa Trapp, president of the NAACP’s San Diego branch, said: “If (school) integration is not working, then we might want to focus on not being so concerned with having our children sitting in class with white children. We need to look at how best to educate children as a whole.”

If Trapp had made these comments a few months ago, she would have been fired like the presidents of the Bergen County, N.J., and Yonkers, N.Y., branches who questioned the viability of busing as an integration tool.

Thousands of other conferees are disappointed that top officials are ignoring their concerns. “I feel like they didn’t keep their word,” said Ely Sutton, a landscaper who drove to Pittsburgh from Los Angeles. “If somebody says he’s going to listen to you but says up front that he won’t consider changing his opinion, what’s the point in talking? We just want to be heard in a real way. That’s all.”

NAACP leaders may be morally correct in remaining committed to school integration. But rank-and-file members eventually will force leaders to vote up or down on a resolution that re-evaluates the organization’s position.

After all, surveys conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank, show that most black people support vouchers and neighborhood and charter schools and clearly are dissatisfied with public schools.

On this one issue, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization is still out of step with average black people.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.