One would think that if any state would have a grasp on the evilness and ugliness of racial discrimination, it would be Arkansas. It was in Arkansas, after all, where segregationist governor Orval Faubus moved to block nine black students from exercising their Constitutional right to attend the all-white Little Rock Central High School. Faubus (a Democrat) was forced to stand by impotently when President Eisenhower (a Republican) sent in troops from the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, to enroll those young people and escort them to class.
That was 1957. Over the next decade civil rights protests and public outrage changed the nation for the better in dramatic fashion - particularly in the American south.
But racism operates like disease, constantly searching for a way to reassert itself - either through a weak body or a weak social institution.
Public schools are especially vulnerable targets for simmering racists. It is at the public school level where taxpayers sense they have the most control over government operations and spending. Nationwide approximately half of public school funding comes from local sources, and much of the spending priorities are determined by locally-elected school boards. School administrators find themselves surviving in office by kowtowing to the members of the local boards and unilaterally accepting local standards - even if those standards are shameless.
The town of McGehee is located in southeastern Arkansas, the poorest region of the state and, not surprisingly, the area where much of the state's black population is concentrated. In 2000 Desha County, home to the town of McGehee, had a population that was 50% white and 46% black.
With those kinds of numbers, it shouldn't come as a surprise to find that local schools might occasionally find themselves honoring black students. They have as much right to accolades as their white classmates, and this is, after all, the twenty-first century.
But school administrators in McGehee apparently failed to get the memo about Jim Crow being dead. When the high school principal put pencil to paper last spring to determine the valedictorian, he was appalled to find that a black student, Kymberly Wimberly, had earned the honor. He reportedly remarked that having a black valedictorian would be a "big mess." In order to avert a backlash from the white community, the principal decided to have "co-valedictorians," and have Ms. Wymberlyy share the honor that she alone earned with a white student who had a lower grade point average.
No word yet on whether the weasel principal managed to keep his job through his daring bid to maintain community standards.
There is an online petition being circulated by Color of Change to address this outrage. As a former valedictorian and a former high school principal, I was proud to sign it.