By Barney Blakeney
In the three weeks since members of the National Action Network disrupted the March 18 Charleston County Consolidated School Board monthly meeting, little has changed regarding the dynamics that sparked the protest. In a move that may or may not have been a surprise, South Carolina National Action Network President Elder James Johnson commandeered the floor criticizing board members and district administrators for facilitating ongoing disparities that disenfranchise Black students. In response to Johnson’s unrelenting verbal attack all but two Black members of the nine-member board walked out of the meeting.
Johnson said his verbal confrontation was unplanned. Reliable sources say board members days before knew the protest would be staged. Regardless, since then it’s been business as usual in the district. Whether that business moves the district on a continuing course in the same direction or is intended to eliminate the disparities Johnson protested is debatable.
Last week Johnson said the protest was sparked by the threatened closure of Prestige Preparatory Academy – an issue he says is non-negotiable. Since opening to serve boys in grades k-5 in 2016, the school has struggled to survive. When it opened two days after others in the district, the teaching staff of five was disillusioned. All but one teacher quit. Students also left. Of the 70 that began the year only about 60 remained. Since charter schools are funded based on their enrollment, it quickly became evident to district officials Prestige Preparatory Academy would be a financial albatross.
But Johnson said the protest encompasses more than Prestige Prep. “We’re in a state of emergency regarding Charleston County School schools,” Johnson said. “Our schools are so bad it’s affecting everything from crime to economic development. The system has failed to educate Black kids for over 100 years. Things are worse now than they were before the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision. We’re paying taxes for the system to fail our kids.
“And it’s not just Black kids!” Johnson exclaimed. “The system also is failing white kids. Industry moving here with good paying jobs is recruiting their workforce from elsewhere,” he said. “We can’t take it anymore!”
Johnson’s frustration is understood, said board member Kevin Hollinshead. The situation has been so bad for Black students for so many years, it’s reached a boiling point, he reasoned. The district must be sensitive to the needs of its African American students, Hollinshead said. “We’ve got a long way to go dealing with race relations in Charleston County. Blacks who can survive do, but others get thrown under the bus,” Hollinshead said.
Board member Priscilla Jefferies also understands the frustration. But there must be more productive discussions than that which occurred at the March 18 meeting, she said. Perhaps unknown to Johnson and others, initiatives aimed at eliminating disparities that have persisted in the district are underway, Jefferies said.
“The district is frustrating,” she said. “But if we don’t talk about things they can’t be fixed. Screaming doesn’t really get us anywhere. We need conversations, not screaming. Conversations that may be painful, especially for white people, but they are necessary. I know Black parents have heard all that before and I can’t guarantee anything will change. But I don’t think what happened moved us forward.”