An overflow crowd of mostly African-American parents, clergy, politicians and teachers packed a town hall meeting in Kenner Monday night to voice outrage and suspicions about a proposal by a Jefferson Parish School Board member to end forced busing and return to neighborhood schools.
Protesters said the proposal by board member Ellen Kovach is nothing more than a veiled, racist attempt to separate black students from white students. They vowed to fight it with as many people and resources as they can muster.
“I distrust your motives, and I distrust the motives of the board,” said Martha Jean Williams, one of more than a dozen speakers who blasted Kovach and her attempt to free the board of 1971 desegregation order. “And I will not sit here and let you get away with this. It is not in the best interest of our children for them to be segregated.”
The Rev. Joseph Walker of Second Highway Baptist Church of Marrero described Kovach as “David Duke with a dress” and called on the board “not to put this mess to sleep but to kill it.”
Kovach, a first-year board member, proposed her plan for a neighborhood-based school system in August, saying it is not racially motivated but an attempt to send students to schools closest to their homes. The plan, she said, would shorten the time students spend on buses and improve parents’ access to their children’s schools.
The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal Nov. 7.
Monday night’s hearing followed an hourlong protest organized by the Rev. Byron Clay, regional vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group co-founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957.
More than two dozen protesters carried photographs of King and chanted hymns such as “We Shall Overcome.” They then moved into the meeting room, which by the start of the hearing had filled to overflow with more than 200 people.
The hearing began with comments from Kovach, who in a prepared statement insisted that her proposal was not racially motivated.
“I know this is a sensitive issue with a painful past,” she said, “but I hope you will open your minds to the facts because if you do, you will see that this is in no way, shape or form an attempt to resegregate our schools and there is no racist intent driving this motion.”
She said she has studied the demographics of the school system as of Sept. 1 and believes the schools will continue to be diverse if her proposal passes, changing by only 2 or 3 percent. She added that some schools will actually become more diverse without forced busing.
Barnes accused Kovach of using the African-American community to advance her own political agenda and said she will do everything in her power to defeat the plan. She told Kovach to “get her facts straight” when Kovach accused her of refusing to educate herself on how the proposal could be beneficial to black students.
Barnes, Clay and other opponents said they don’t see anything redeeming in the plan. “It is ill-timed, it is insulting, it is racially insensitive and it is suspicious,” Clay said. “That’s why it is important that we dramatize and protest. We have a moral obligation to take a stand.”
During the earlier protest, Clay vowed to draw national attention to the proposal if it passes. “We will not let this issue go away.”