by Max Brantley
For the second of what will no doubt be many days, the Democrat-Gazette editorial page's has compared the group formed to support LR School Superintendent Roy Brooks with the Women's Emergency Committee of school crisis fame. It's inaccurate to the point of dishonesty.
I know many members of the WEC. I worked for years on the Central High Museum board with Irene Samuel, a giant of a tiny, feisty woman and bulwark of the WEC. My mother-in-law, too, was a member. They are gone now. They'd never let me speak for them. But I know this much. They might, in their carefully considered and intellectual ways, have decided to support Roy Brooks as superintendent. It is hard for me to believe they would have been much impressed with his programmed cliches and his paternalistic disdain for teachers and strong women, true. But I do know if they chose to support him they would not have done so in the manner of this shadowy and secretly financed group of angry Heights and West Little Rock mommas who've rallied around Brooks.
Irene Samuel and Martha Bass certainly would not have supported Roy Brooks by tearing down the Classroom Teachers Association, a bulwark of civil rights and quality education, including in the 1950s, when it was hard to be either. (Martha was a member.) They would not have accomplished their mission by demonizing a lawyer and their friend, John Walker, who's been fighting for the rights of black people and the disenfranchised for half a century. They'd have made a public, dignified and fact-filled appeal to reason. They'd have perhaps called out one of the Panel of American Women groups in which they participated to bring some cross-cultural understanding to racial issues of the day.
The leader of the rich mamas declines to talk to people like me, with whom she disagrees. She declines to identify the financial supporters of her group, despite an arguable legal and clear moral imperative to do so. The group suggests broadly that black board membes are merely puppets for dark forces; that they are too stupid to make decisions for themselves. Compare this angry, name-calling bunch to the calm and dignified WEC and its appeal ONLY to opening schools for the benefit of children? It's a blood libel.
This group is reminiscent of 1957, to be sure. It's reminiscent of the Central High Mother's League, a similarly angry ad hoc group that sowed dissension and fought to the bitter end to preserve the old system where whites were in control and blacks were to be tolerated if they took their accustomed separate and unequal seats..
We are heading to catastrophe. There will be a school board meeting where there will be a vote on retaining Roy Brooks. It is possible -- perhaps likely -- that the four-member black majority will vote to fire him. The white minority will vote to retain him. Angry white mothers will fill part of the room. Backed by money from a business community uncomfortable with black board leadership (and egged on, shamefully, from the shadows by board member Larry Berkley) they will attack the character of the black board members, decry the teachers' union and paint John Walker as the Darth Vader of LR schools. Black mothers will fill the remaining space. They will angrily accuse the other side of trying to preserve a plantation system and accuse some good people of racism. They are not much interested in dialogue either.
Neither side, frankly, has distinguished itself or demonstrated an ability to lead. Improbable rumors are rife on both sides. These rumors demean each side in their repetition.
Roy Brooks' management style and his serial lapses in administration decisions are deeply troubling, if not necessarily at the level of a firing offense. But, what's worse, is the absence of a public indication that he's gotten the message of the last election, that voters wanted a change and wanted him to give more deference to ALL members of the School Board. On the other hand, the black majority has moved unsteadily at best and fed the wild rumor-mongering by shifts and feints and private meetings about Brooks. It hasn't inspired confidence either. And it has shown little willingness to reach across the divide and find some common ground.
So we face an explosive meeting, clearly split on racial lines, with the heir to the segregationist newspaper of 1957, the Arkansas Democrat, gleefully whipping up the division editorially and running ads to stir up an angry mob.
Happy 50th anniversary, Little Rock. This episode ought to set the tone for all the anniversary news coverage that is to come. It will be sad. But it will be a fair picture of our community. The minute somebody tells you something is not about race, it's about race.
Breathes there a modern-day Women's Emergency Committee worthy of that venerable group's name?