Magic Bus

The NAACP's education lawsuit promised to be a watershed case for poor and minority kids. So when exactly did the wheels come off?

In the ensuing months, the parents took their protests to school-board meetings. Things quickly grew more strident, and soon people were calling African-American board members "Uncle Toms." Within months, the protests had grown so loud--drums were banged at one session--that board members walked out of one meeting and established strict ground rules for others.

While Shulman denies claims that his law firm orchestrated the protests, he concedes that the attention they drew was useful. "Did we need some coverage? Yes, we did," he says. "In fact, my office alerted the media to some of the protests. But the mainstream media is more interested in conflict than in substantive issues. Were [the protests] counterproductive? Not a chance."

Either way, many of Shulman's backers say the demonstrations sundered the suit's chances for finding widespread support. Bearman says the scenes at the school board "threw a monkey-wrench" into efforts to locate funds for the case: She and Little had lined up someone--she won't say whom--to help raise money, but both the fundraiser and potential donors were horrified at the protests. Shulman says he began getting calls from community leaders, both black and white, asking him to rein the parents in.

The dispute helped touch off a bitter power struggle within the Minneapolis NAACP (see "Black Like Us," March 17, 1999). When president Leola Seals, who had supported the demonstrators, ran for reelection in January 1999, a number of elected officials and NAACP members joined forces to try to vote her out of office. Seals was eventually unseated, but not before a months-long review process threatened to tear the group apart. In the end Minneapolis Deputy Fire Chief Rickie Campbell was installed as president even as several of his allies--including Bearman and Little--were expelled from the NAACP for a year. The pair's expulsion, Bearman says, was another reason fundraising assistance for the lawsuit dried up.

Shulman says the lack of money wasn't a problem for him: He estimates that his firm spent about $100,000 in expenses and put in $1.5 million worth of pro-bono time for the suit. (It also received some cash from the NAACP: Minutes from the group's meetings show several payments to the attorneys, including one for $20,000.) They would have liked to get more money, he concedes, "but you do what you need to do. We took the case and if that meant putting up money and time, that's our commitment."

Nonetheless, Shulman says, he was surprised when support for the case among Minneapolis power brokers evaporated. "Did we embarrass the DFL machine? Yes. Did we embarrass our white liberal friends? Definitely. But where were those friends when we said, 'Hold off on community schools?' The engine for that train was a white, liberal, DFL train. And when we got in front of that train, people really got angry."

 

Doug Mann was at every single one of the school-board protests. Tall, with a shock of fuzzy blond hair, he's a licensed practical nurse with a lifetime membership in the NAACP and a son in the third grade at a Minneapolis public school. Like Evelyn Eubanks, he has kept reams of documents tracing his involvement with the lawsuit. And like Eubanks, he has become convinced that over the years the case drifted away from the interests of the people in whose name it had been filed.

In 1998, Mann says, the Shulmans recruited him and his wife to become plaintiffs in a second educational-adequacy lawsuit, Xiong et al. v. State of Minnesota. (The attorneys say they filed the second suit because they wanted to introduce legal theories that weren't in the first one; some NAACP members privately doubt this, saying that the second suit put the lawyers--and not the civil-rights organization--in control of the process.) A longtime activist who has self-published a series of booklets with titles such as White Supremacy and the Politics of Apartheid in Minnesota, and The Fight Against Urban Cleansing & Gentrification in Minneapolis, Mann was happy to sign up.

But, he says, he soon grew concerned about the attorneys' tactics. They were asking for the moon, he believed, when they demanded that district boundaries be erased across the metro area. "I proposed desegregating Minneapolis schools," says Mann. "I have no problem with community schools so long as the boundaries are drawn in such a way that they not have a racial disparity. You could have a desegregation plan that has some busing, but not massive busing like in the Sixties and Seventies."

Eubanks was developing similar doubts while participating in the meetings about the mediation process. She had no interest in putting her kids on buses to attend suburban schools. "If we can't hold the district we're in accountable," she says, "how are we going to hold a suburban district accountable?"

John Shulman says he understands that some of the parents involved in the suit didn't agree with his legal strategy. But, he insists, history shows that the best way to improve an impoverished urban district is to merge it with its wealthier suburban counterparts. Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor who has studied desegregation, agrees: Based on the experiences of other communities, he says, "a metrowide school district is by far the best solution. [Otherwise] people in more viable neighborhoods simply create islands."

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