Between 1968 and 1976, Raleigh's white population dropped by 11 percent, and this "white flight" turned areas just outside the Beltline encircling Raleigh into what one educator called "trailer city." A 1968 editorial in The News & Observer warned that Raleigh was in danger of becoming a "little Chicago ... with hostile black consciousness and separatism growing with resegregation."
A proposal to merge the two districts was put to a referendum in 1973, and was defeated by a 3-1 margin. But three years later, the two systems were joined by an act of the state legislature.
Over the years, the united school district tried to integrate in all sorts of ways. Students were bused into town from county neighborhoods. All sixth graders were sent to four downtown centers. A network of magnet schools was established, though by the 1980s, most of those bused were minorities from downtown.
By the 1990s, the federal courts began issuing rulings discouraging forced racial integration. So at the beginning of 2000, in an effort to head off a lawsuit, the board adopted new diversity standards, replacing race with income. Under the policy, the goal was to have no school with more than 40 percent of its students on free or reduced lunch, or more than a quarter scoring below grade level.
With 140,000 students in 160 schools, Wake County was the largest of about 70 districts across the nation using socio-economic status to maintain diversity. The system was considered a model for those looking for a way around race-based assignment scheme rejected by the courts.
"It (the Wake County system) really was a beacon, a flag around which more and more people were rallying as they saw the positive effects of this," says sociologist Gerald Grant, a professor emeritus at Syracuse University and author of the book "Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh."
But some parents grew tired of sending their children off on long bus rides. Others said the policy may have brought whites and blacks together, but it wasn't really helping blacks educationally.
And there are those who say people forgot how bad the bad old days were.
"For folks who were there and lived through it, there's a real sense of a collective forgetting, a collective amnesia," says James Leloudis, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was in high school when the county system integrated. "There is a kind of tragic disremembering."
Part of the story is that Wake County is increasingly populated by people who did not grow up here and do not feel the tug or burden of that history. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of Wake County's residents were born outside North Carolina.
"The population shift is HUGE," says Grant, who briefly taught at a Raleigh high school while researching his book. "You had folks moving down there from Lexington, Mass., and buying a $275,000 house, and they thought a white school came with it. But when they got down there, they found their kids were getting on a bus."
At a recent conference at North Carolina State University, Grant jokingly told supporters of the diversity policy that their biggest mistake was that they "didn't build the gates on all the roads leading to Raleigh to keep all those damn Yankees out of here" — people like New York native Tedesco, one of four new board members chosen in an election last fall that saw just 8 percent turnout.
"They were well coordinated, well funded," says Grant. "They got their message out, and they gathered the discontented."
Immediately after taking office, the new 5-4 majority began dismantling the old diversity plan. The response was equally immediate. In February, Superintendent Del Burns — who started as a special education teacher in 1976 and had led the district since 2006 — resigned.
"It is clear to me that I cannot, in all good conscience, continue to serve," he said.
Supporters of the old assignment policy sued to have the board's March 23 vote overturned, alleging open meetings violations. A judge dismissed the suit, but the plaintiffs have appealed.
On June 15, when the board rejected Barber's demand for 45 minutes to address the full panel, he and three others occupied the board chamber. The only way they would leave, they said, was in handcuffs.
Following their release, the newly dubbed "Raleigh 4" published an open letter titled "Thoughts While we were Being Handcuffed, and Processed at the Wake County Jail on June 15 after Engaging in an Act of Nonviolent Civil Disobedience" — a direct allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
"There is a tragedy unfolding in Wake County, but it is not confined to Wake County ... ," the letter read. "The shadow of resegregation is falling across the state of North Carolina and the nation."
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