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Civil Rights Advocates Visit Charlotte In Midst Of Heated Education Debate

Charlotte got called a few bad names this week. The head of the local NAACP Kojo Nantambu called the city "a racist bastion" and urged sports tournaments to boycott Charlotte. That hasn't gone over well with some prominent African Americans like Mayor Anthony Foxx. Yesterday he said that such a harsh verdict leaves us nowhere to go as a community. That word community got a lot of play in Foxx's statement. It got even more, when some national civil rights advocates spoke in Charlotte yesterday about the educational challenges facing minorities. School closings and budget cuts have generated a lot of heat over the past few months and race has been a constant in those debates. Families have accused CMS of racism for closing schools that serve mostly minorities and parents of students in mostly white, suburban schools have decried crowded classrooms. Cassandra Wynn, a communications professor at Johnson C Smith, isn't surprised with the intensity of the discussion. "It's probably been heated since when we first integrated and when we first started cross- town busing and then when we were in suit to end busing," says Wynn. "Somehow schools is the hot issue that stirs up issues of race or the misunderstanding or differences of race." A lot has been stirred up this week. The district's use of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a snow make-up day riled up some people including Nantambu. That's what prompted the name-calling and the plea for a boycott. Yesterday, Mayor Foxx said that was the wrong way to go about things. In a statement, he said "with tongues too sharp or ears too closed we can miss opportunities to build bridges and make progress." Wynn felt like she heard the week's news in sound bites and that she says did no one justice. "We tend to get excited about the bits and pieces we hear and sometimes we don't have time to stop and put them together and consider the bigger significance," says Wynn. In the midst of this heated discussion, four national civil rights advocates paid a visit to Charlotte yesterday: Former Mississippi Governor William Winter, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund John Payton, Director of the National Council of La Raza Janet Murguia and Fox News commentator Juan Williams. The Levine Museum of the New South invited them many months ago to talk about the impact of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the challenges facing public education. This was long before school closings and budget cuts put race at the forefront of the community and before NPR's controversial firing of Williams. Speaking with reporters before a panel discussion, they focused on the re-segregation of schools partly due to white flight and the gap in graduation rates between whites and minorities. In CMS the graduation rate for white students is 85 percent, but among African Americans it's 62 percent, and Hispanics 55 percent. As governor of Mississippi in the early '80s, Winter pushed through sweeping education reform, in a state that was still struggling to come to terms with desegregation. Yesterday, he said the country has lost its sense of community. "We have to have the courage to speak out and say to our neighbors that we're all in this together and bring to bear a sufficiently strong public opinion that insists we come together, share our resources, create a system of public education where no one gets left out," said Winter. Williams said with the sluggish economy and budgets being slashed it's a difficult time to achieve that sense of purpose. "I'm not sure you can be in the business right now of saving souls or arguing with people who think, 'I'm in the suburbs my kids are fine, it's the problem with inner city schools and times are tough and I'm paying too much taxes,'" said Williams. Williams said in these times the economic argument goes down easier. For example, having an educated workforce able to compete globally. That he said is the way to get people thinking of education not just in terms of their own kids, but others in the community. Murguia with La Raza was more hopeful that dialogue and better understanding would suffice. "If we stay focused on equity and education and our priorities are clear, there's no reason why we can't lift all our kids instead of worrying about another segment of kids and how they're a threat," said Murguia. But not everyone agrees on just what equity looks like in a system where there are such disparities in achievement along race and income lines. As CMS begins cutting $100 million from its budget that will continue to be a point of contention.