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Integration held promise of racial harmony

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BY KEITHA D. BURNETT
Special to the Telegram

Sunday, February 11, 2018

It was August 1972, I was sitting on the bleachers on the right-hand side with my fellow classmates at O.R. Pope Elementary School in Rocky Mount.

All of us were waiting for what would be a historical moment in American history, the integration of public schools by busing. The landmark case, Schwann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) ruled that busing was an appropriate remedy to address the racial imbalance of schools. In North Carolina, nearly 100 percent of black students still attended segregated schools nearly 20 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The new white students escorted by the principal, T.W. Williams, came into the building in a single file line and sat on the opposite side of the gym/auditorium/cafeteria (that’s the way it was then). The atmosphere was filled with slight whispers and intense stares. The teachers were lined up against the wall with their clip boards as if they were waiting to give a death sentence. I can’t remember all of the details that happened thereafter, but I vividly remember that each teacher called out their class roster and this is where there was a merging of two racial groups, literally and symbolically.

There were rumors of instigating fights, but they did not materialize — at least not at the elementary school, but it was quite different at Rocky Mount Senior High where my older brother attended. It was so chaotic, according to my brother, the students were sent home that day. I don’t know the details of what the school board or principal did, but they effectively squelched the unrest.

In the elementary classroom, my teacher strategically integrated the classroom and to this day I remember Dee Shearin, the little white girl that sat right next to me with her cute little lunch box. I think that I had a question for her all 180 days of school, and she always had her questions for me.

What did Rocky Mount do to try to bring balance to two groups that had been separated by de jure and de facto provisions? By the time I had entered high school, techniques had been implemented to increase the likelihood of meaningful interaction by designing integration of every aspect of school life, such as having equal number of black and white cheerleaders and having a black and white homecoming queen. I was more interested in student government, and the school required a black and white student to run on a ticket together — president, vice president; secretary, treasurer — and all of the committees in the President’s Cabinet were co-chaired by one black and white student.

These were just some of the things that were done. I know it worked because it increased dialogue that would not have otherwise occurred without a systematic plan in place. Even the music during this time and thereafter echoed the of sentiments racial harmony, such as “A Change is Going Come” bySam Cooke, “Imagine” by John Lennon, “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen, “One Love” byBob Marley, “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and “Black and White” by Michael Jackson.

This Black History Month, with all due respect, I do not want to hear about all of the black contributions, songs and dances, when we are steadily losing the vision of racial harmony that so many people worked so hard to create and preserve. You see, it is not an achievement or destination, but just simple respect for each other. It cannot happen if we do not have the mindset to continue to work together in hopes of keeping Dr. Martin Luther King's dream alive.

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