When Dr. Harriss Canceled the Critical Issues Seminar on South Africa
Note: This report was first submitted to Northside High School Principal William Rudolph on May 14, 1990. The report, which documented an extraordinary week at Northside during the Principal’s absence, has been edited and updated for purposes of readability and comprehension.
The Northside High School Critical Issues Seminars and Distinguished Lecturer Series was officially established in 1984 but actually began a few years earlier when random scheduling of visiting speakers and round table seminars began evolving into a school-wide forum.
The seminar’s aim: Inform students about timely / important matters affecting them.
Northside students were regularly exposed to public officials, official sources, experts on various subjects, even ordinary people who might help students to learn both sides of an issue, and then decide for themselves (inquiry method of instruction, Edwin Fenton, The New Social Studies, 1967). Distinguished Lecturers were invited on the basis of:
- Role model exceptionality – office holder, business / professional success
- Provision of inside or insightful knowledge, expertise, analysis
- Possesses specific information or skill set of value to student life preparation.
Critical Issues Seminars: Joint venture between Social Studies and Gifted Departments
Social Studies teacher Dr. Arnold Heller, working school-wide with the Gifted Program Teachers, adapted expanded social studies and life lessons to the Performing Arts theater stage or gymnasium. The audiences were invited ahead of time and provided instructional materials. The packets usually included background material and a set of questions written and ordered for fair examination of the issue. Seminars were routinely video-taped by the Performing Arts Tech Crew and placed in the library as teacher resource materials for class lessons.
All guests were questioned by a racially and sexually balanced panel of four (4) student interviewers. The questions, generally numbering 15 – 20, were collectively developed by Gifted Students working in small groups with their teacher-facilitator and me. If time allowed, students in the audience were encouraged to approach the microphone and ask other related questions.
A diverse list of experts / resource people volunteered their time to grace Northside students with their knowledge and wisdom:
- Robert Fierer – Atlanta lawyer who negotiated the Berlin swap of Soviet prisoner of conscience Anatoly Scharansky for imprisoned Soviet spy Rudolph Hess and appeared the night before seminar on the Nightline TV show with Ted Koppel. Title of seminar was; “Private Citizens are not Powerless.”
- President Ronald Reagan, June 1985
- First Lady Nancy Reagan, Sept. 1984
- Rev. Jesse Jackson, 3 times on subjects ranging from Racism, Illegitimacy, Don’t Do Drugs
- Former Senators Gary Hart (Defense Matters and Common Sense) and Wyche Fowler (Middle East Foreign Policy)
- Former U.S. Senator and Peace Corp Director Paul Coverdell
- Writer Pat Conroy – “Making a living as a writer.”
- Holocaust survivors Cantor Isaac Goodfriend, TV actor Robert Clary, Lili Kopecki twice
- Dr. Norbert Walter, Chief International Economist, Deutsch Bank, Germany’s largest financial concern
- NBA Commissioner David Stern on the “Dr. J Syndrome – False hope of an NBA career and consequences.”
- TV commentator Tony Brown of PBS’s Tony Brown’s Journal
- Historian Robert Pastor on “Roots of Sandinista – Contra Civil War in Nicaragua”
- Former Congressman, UN Ambassador, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young
- Congressman John Lewis
- Former Atlanta Mayors Sam Massell, Maynard Jackson, Bill Campbell
South Africa 1990: Transition begins from Apartheid to Mandela’s Rainbow Nation
In 1988, an outbreak of violence in Soweto Township – three million people living in sprawling shacks outside of Johannesburg – plastered South Africa across American TV screens. World wide attention was suddenly focused on the African National Congress (ANC) struggle against the Apartheid regime.
A sudden interest expressed by my classroom students suggested demand existed for a seminar on this then very delicate subject. Ideally, a fair discussion of the subject would bring together a member of the South African government and an African National Congress representative to express their competing views. Because of the ruling National Party’s regulation that no member of the South African government share a stage with an ANC rep until the party renounced armed struggle, the seminar was scheduled as a series.
Mr. Johannes de Klerk, South African Consul-General, flew in from Houston, Texas to represent his country and its policies. A few days later, David Ndaba, an ANC member and Morehouse University student, informed Northsiders about his side of South African reality and aims of his party. By all accounts, the seminar was very successful.
One of the more surprising aspects was the level and tone of progressivism and moderation in the Consul’s answers. Mr. de Klerk’s benign grandfatherly appearance made him seem quite human instead of the monster some expected. Many minority group students who, in class, had expressed harsh feelings towards the Consul and his country openly treated him with respect, even smiled at him.
Over the next two years, much progress was made in South Africa towards the dismantling of Apartheid.
- Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison
- ANC was un-banned and free to openly meet and organize
- Significant first steps were taken to bring about a more equitable sharing of political and economic power
- Government of President William de Klerk was increasingly displaying recognition of the black’s human and civil rights and vocalizing a desire to build a fairer South Africa
- Even Nelson Mandela praised de Klerk, though serious obstacles still existed.
Apartheid and Segregation:
I grew up in the North and watched on TV Birmingham Sheriff Bull Conner unleash police dogs on demonstrators demanding basic civil rights. The image that came through the television screen was that all Southerners were racists – that, of course, was a stereotype. I have lived in the South since 1972 and learned that even during segregation there were many whites who hated the separation of race laws and supported Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Similar stereotypes were commonly applied to white South Africans, more so Afrikaners, who are of predominately Dutch, German or French heritage.
The blanket condemnation ignored a stunning rate of change.
- The social architecture of Apartheid had been dismantled
- Tribal Homelands Act that banished black ethnic groups to dispersed islands of extreme poverty was terminated
- Courageous steps were taken towards sharing of power by an insecure minority population.
Sequel: Critical Issues Seminar Series #2: South Africa 1990 – The Preparation:
This was the background and rationale by which the second seminar series on South Africa was scheduled. A major hope at the time was that perhaps the world, specifically people in Atlanta, black or white, were ready to acknowledge that South Africa was changing and that not all whites were racist monsters, or for that matter too – government officials. Furthermore, the lead editorial of the May 12, 1990 Atlanta Constitution stated that same perception.
Mr. Gerhard Pretorious, South Africa Consul-General, agreed to speak to about 400 selected Northside students on Tuesday, May 8. The same 400 students were to return the following Monday, May 14, to hear Mr. David Ndaba, ANC Rep, who had favorably impressed the students two years earlier. Ms. Tandi Gboshi, the exiled daughter of slain Mandela lieutenant Albert Lithuli, was to join Mr. Ndaba onstage.
Twenty classes overall were invited, admittedly on a subjective basis:
- Perceived capability of students to favorably represent the school with selection process done as inclusively as possible
- Student capacity to listen, learn, process information and ask pertinent questions if given the opportunity
- Approximately 25% of the classes were Advanced Placement and Honor’s classes, the rest comprised of regular classes
- Racial composition was about 75% black and 25% white, a ratio roughly parallel to the schools 1990 composition.
- An effort was made to include language arts, math and science classes and not just social studies. In addition, a drama and a dance class were also invited.
The preparations for the first seminar series (1988) were kept in-house and class selection delayed until just a few days before the seminars to hopefully head off any interference from the community that might disrupt it. de Klerk and Ndaba’s interviews had been incident free and considered one of the more successful out of several dozen that had taken place during the 1980’s heyday.
Given the strong passions that the name South Africa still evoked in 1990, it was hoped that this seminar would be incident free too. This time, “under the radar” seminar preparation and last minute announcement wasn’t possible. Reason – I, the school’s Close Up Program Coordinator, had to be in Washington, D. C. the entire week leading up to the Pretorious seminar. Virtually all preparations had to be done nearly two weeks in advance. Retrospectively, that was too long.
Before leaving for Close Up week, I walked around the school carefully selecting a cross section of classes similar in make-up to first South African seminar. Four hundred people were invited, about the theater’s limit due to space consumed by technical equipment. Although the gym can accommodate the total school population, it lacks the theaters intimacy, acoustics, and air conditioned comfort. The gym was so poorly equipped for a seminar that only President Reagan and Rev. Jackson were sufficiently compelling orators to make the gym work.
Instructional Packet: Student preparation for seminar
All invited teachers were given an instructional packet that included:
A. Three pages of Xeroxed history from an encyclopedia that provided a brief overview of South African development and the construction of Afrikaner racialist laws.
B. Recent news article from the International Herald Tribune newspaper that described the current state of government and ANC negotiations and effectiveness of the economic sanctions imposed by many nations against South Africa.
- Significant progress in power sharing had been made
- Sanctions had had mixed effects
- Sanctions should continue for the time being until more progress was made.
I urged in the written instructions that all invited teachers please encourage the students to be respectful to both guests. All visitors to Northside, regardless of the popularity of their views, were to be treated with civility. The Northside Forum had achieved its surprising recognition due to its commitment to free intellectual discourse and fair treatment for all featured speakers. Not one impolite incident had taken place in the remarkable history of the series.
1990: Northside School of the Arts Tours Moscow, Kiev, St. Petersburg: One Moment in Time
A secondary factor was an ongoing cultural exchange between the Northside School of the Arts visit to Russia. The Tour Show’s concerts had been organized by Soviet Youth Visa, a an artistically talented student group associated with the Moscow Aviation Institute in Russia. From Dec. 18, 1989 until Jan. 5, 1990, the Northside Tour Show performed numerous concerts in Moscow, Kiev (Ukraine), and then Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
I had received a $51,000 grant from the Anonymous Donor through the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Foundation. Mr. Billy Densmore, School of the Arts Coordinator, raised another $10,000 from Anne Cox Chambers to fund the entourage of 64 students / tech crew, 5 teacher-chaperons, 4 parent-chaperons, 2 interpreters , a total of 75 people in all.
Dom Fusco, a parent and videographer – his daughter was a member of the Tour Show – produced a video of the exchange called “One Moment In Time”. Dom’s video documented the Tour Show’s significant achievements such as being the first group ever to sing Handel’s Messiah in the Soviet Union. Northside students performed at the prestigious Rimsky-Korsakov Institute and Music Conservatory in St. Petersburg.
South Africa’s Moment In Time:
Upon returning home from Russia, I learned of a number of breakthroughs between the ANC and the National Party government. After inviting Mr. Pretorious, I sent him a copy of the “One Moment in Time” video. I hoped that Pretorious would view us as positive rainbow model for his segregated nation – build bridges between South Africa’s diverse population long separated or isolated from each other to come together as one nation.
Mr. Pretorious was impressed by the Russian tour video and expressed interest in the special mission idea. After his onstage interview, Mr. Pretorious planned to sit down with Mr. Densmore and I to figure out how to pay for the Northside tour of his country.
Mr. Pretorious was aware that four black Sarafina cast members of a touring company that had recently played the Fox Theater downtown had visited Northside and been well received. He simply expected the same measure of respect and treatment and we promised him that the school would provide it. Mention of this proposed trip to South Africa was included in the instructional packet. The purpose was to inform the school that it had a stake in treating Mr. Pretorious respectfully by appealing to positive peer pressure.
What happened while I was away in Washington:
I left for my week in Washington chaperoning ten students around the nation’s capitol.
- On Monday, a first distortion was circulated in a mythical letter supposedly mailed home to student’s parents
- The distortion was picked up by unidentified Atlanta Pubic Schools officials and widely discussed in public and with members of the media
- No such letter existed or was mailed home – this was a rumor based on a myth that was construed as fact by people who should have known better.
I returned home from Washington on May 5. On May 6, I was contacted at home by Mr. Len Lancette, Assistant Principal and Social Studies Chair, to inform me that the seminars had been canceled. Len conveyed his impressions of what had happened:
- Disgruntled teachers who had not been invited and operating with little or no information had made misleading remarks
- The malcontents spread rumors that only AP, IB and other predominately “white” classes had been invited
- Teachers who held strong feelings against South Africa’s regime expressed
to their students that Mr. Pretorious should not have been invited
- Some students, for whatever reason, told parents that the Consul-General had insisted on upper level, predominately white classes exclusively,
- Other falsehoods were circulated such as the Consul refusing to share stage with non-white student interviewers.
The misleading statements were distributed throughout the general community. Local civil rights activists led by State Senator Tyrone Brooks and Hosea Williams claimed that the Consul should not have been invited; numerous parents complained to the Superintendent. Dr. Harriss had previously served as a Brooklyn District Supervisor before accepting leadership of the Atlanta system with a “mandate to shake the system up”. Upon arrival, Dr. Harriss visited many schools for the purpose of addressing the faculty’s to introduce him self and present his plan of reform.
Superintendent Dr. J. Jerome Harriss visits Northside High School.
Northside High was one of the first Atlanta faculties that Dr. Harriss met with. That day we gathered after school in a section of the gym to meet our new boss. I sat with friends eager to hear what the gentleman had in store for us – was actually excited by his appointment. J. Jerome Harriss, a tall and distinguished looking man, spoke about his background, reforms he had made in Brooklyn, and innovations he had in mind for Atlanta. Dr. Harriss’ speaking manner is to sort of snort when he talks thus creating an impression of a blustery disposition.
Dr. Harriss had brought two assistants from New York with him with the last names Lewis and Clarke. Dr. Ron Lewis, a bright, pleasant fellow, stood next to the Superintendent waiting to assist Dr. Harriss.
I was curious and asked Dr. Harriss about some of his proposed reforms that I had read in the newspaper. Dr. Harriss turns his head to Dr. Lewis; “Ron, what am I supposed to know about that?” Dr. Lewis, to his credit, was quick with the appropriate facts and virtually fed Dr. Harris his lines. ”.
This exchange concerned me. Did Dr. Harriss not know his facts, or were they not important enough for him to bother to remember? Ron Lewis appeared to be a virtual brain trust.
The meeting adjourned and the Northside faculty stood and drifted out of the gym. Many sighs and some groans filled the air – the exchange they had witnessed had not instilled confidence in their new leader. Sadly, some months later, it would be discovered that Dr. Lewis had plagiarized his doctoral dissertation and was let go by the Atlanta system. Dr. Harriss appointed Dr. Norman Thomas, a personable administrator, to fill Ron Lewis’s position.
Mr. Rudolph takes precautions before leaving for Israel:
In a casual conversation the following day (Thursday, May 3) with Ms. Macfarlane, the system’s public relations officer, Bill Rudolph, Northside High Principal, informed Ms. Macfarlane that there might be demonstrators picketing Mr. Pretorious’ visit and to take proper precautions, presumably police protection if necessary.
- Ms. Macfarlane reported Mr. Rudolph’s warning to Dr. Harriss
- Ms. Macfarlane then wrote a letter to Dr. Frank Glover, Area Superintendent for Northside High School, notifying him of the upcoming seminar
- Dr. Glover relayed the notification to Dr. Harriss
- Bill Rudolph, believing that he had followed protocol, flew off to Israel for a week where he was a featured speaker at an international symposium.
Dr. Harriss decides to cancel the seminar:
The next day, Friday, May 4, Dr. Harris sent a “confidential” letter via Dr. Glover to Northside High School which was received according to Mr. Lancette about 3 PM. Mrs. Emma Jackson, acting principal in Bill Rudolph’s absence, opened the letter to discover that Dr. Harriss had opted to cancel the seminar. Dr. Harriss listed three reasons for the cancellation:
- The South African regime was repugnant
- Central Office permission had not been granted
- His phone was ringing off the hook in favor of cancellation.
According to Bill Rudolph, Dr. Glover was instructed by Dr. Harriss the day before to consult with Mr. Rudolph about the seminar. Dr. Glover inquired of Mr. Rudolph why he had not sought permission from either the Central Administration or Area Office to hold this seminar before scheduling it and inviting guests?
Mr. Rudolph answered that Northside, for six years, had operated an outstanding forum without consulting anyone about anything. Furthermore, Mr. Rudolph believed that there was no policy that mandated his doing so.
In the meantime, I was enjoying a lovely week in Washington, D. C., with a dozen other teachers from across the country. While our students were minded by sharp, recent political science graduates, we took in seminars, luncheons, and cultural events. I would gladly have taken a call from Dr. Harris to answer any questions that he might have. But that call never came. I have always found it curious that a man occupying such an important position could make decisions based on so little information.
Return home to chaos:
I returned to work on Monday knowing only what Mr. Lancette had told me. I was frantic to save the seminar and having only until late afternoon before Mrs. Jackson was required to un-invite Mr. Pretorious, I immediately filed a grievance procedure against Dr. Harris’ action. This grievance stated that Dr. Harriss had:
- Violated the instructor’s academic freedom
- The Superintendent had acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.
Grievance Procedure begins:
I then delivered the grievance during my free period to the Central Office on Pryor Street. Although fueled by a sense of right and mission, I was starting to get nervous about the powerful and risky hand I was playing – protesting the Superintendent’s decision to the Board and requesting them to over rule him.
The next day, Tuesday, a steady stream of students entered my class to inquire if the seminar was going to take place. I did not know and could only tell them; “Let’s wait and see.” I observed with interest that the majority of students that appeared angry over a possible cancellation were black.
The end of the day arrived and Mrs. Jackson canceled the seminar as directed. A multi-racial campus group called REVELATIONS, dedicated to ironing out racial problems, decided to protest the cancellation by attending the Atlanta Board of Education meeting that evening. They claimed that they had been unfairly deprived of their right to know.
Appeal to the Atlanta Board of Education:
I was the fifth person on the designated list of scheduled speakers. The first was Mr. Tyrone Brooks, a popular civil rights activist and State Senator, who was often referred to in the press as a “firebrand”. Mr. Brooks quickly lived up to his reputation.
- First, he congratulated Dr. Harriss on “his sensitivity” for canceling the seminar.
- He next compared the Consul-General to Adolph Eichman, the Nazi Final Solution architect
- That Northside should never had invited Mr. Pretorious
- Reeled off three distortions that I was working to dispel.
While Brooks denounced the seminar, Dr. D. F. Glover, the Board President, and no relation to Dr. Frank Glover, concurred by waving his fist and yelling “human rights…yeah…human rights….yeah”
Maryann Bellinger, another board member, supported Mr. Brooks too by recalling her visit to Angola where South Africa had allegedly committed atrocities. Curiously, Mr. Brooks last two sentences were praises about recent South African reforms.
Mr. Brooks finished his speech and left the meeting. I ran after Mr. Brooks, found him outside in the parking lot and attempted to correct him. Mr. Brooks was at first resistant to accept my clarifications. However, my polite but fervent debate – and mention that I was his son’s teacher – eventually got through to him that wild rumors had circulated around town.
Our conversation ended with Brooks asking me if I would invite Louis Farrakhan to Northside. I answered that Farrakhan was welcome to speak and I also extended a Distinguished Lecturer invitation to Mr. Brooks and scheduled him for late September or early October 1991 on whatever theme or topic he chose. We shook hands, smiled, said good night.
It was my turn to appeal to the Board. I first provided them with handouts that listed the many past speakers and spectrum of seminar issues. I followed up by lamenting that the seminar series had been hurt, perhaps damaged by Dr. Harriss’ action – that we could no longer be viewed as perfectly honest brokers.
I also described the great Tour Show success in Russia, and how a similar proposed mission to South Africa was surely in jeopardy, if not terminated. Dr. Harriss then declared that no APS students were going to South Africa as long as he was the superintendent. No one paid him much attention.
Dr. Butts accompanied Heller, Densmore and the Northside students on Soviet tour:
I acknowledged Dr. Lester Butts, APS Deputy Superintendent, who that Dec. 22, 1989 – Jan. 6, 1990, had accompanied Coordinator Billy Densmore, and the Northside Tour Show Exchange, and myself to Russia and the Ukraine. Dr. and Mrs. Butts, his lovely wife, had witnessed 4,500 Russian music lovers standing and clapping the Tour Show’s parading of the US and USSR flags in an onstage march for peace.
The Northside student performers encouraged the audience to join with them in singing We Are The World. Several hundred Russians joined them onstage, locked hands, and sang for peace. Dr. Butts and I stood together watching this beautiful scene unfold with tears in our eyes. Dom Fusco video-taped this One Moment in Time, the name of Dom’s documentary. I joined the crowd onstage, locked hands with two Russian middle-aged ladies, and sang along too.
That special moment in Russia occurred against the backdrop of Soviet communism collapsing in the Velvet Revolutions that swept across Central Europe, one country a week through November and December. The Berlin Wall had been torn down two months earlier, the Soviet system was on its last legs, the Russian ruble was worth 16 cents. Dr. Butts had chaperoned Northside students across the Soviet Union during the time of Gorbachev’s trying to save the Soviet system with his Glasnost (openness) and Perekstroika (restructuring) reforms.
So Dr. Butts understood what was at stake – Dr. Harriss’ reckless action might torpedo a South Africa Tour Show mission that was timely and promising – but what could he do, Dr. Harris was his boss. The Board Members assured me that they now understood the facts about cancellation and aftermath. Superintendent Harriss was the lone dissenter and yielded no ground.
I accepted his position, breathed a big sigh of relief, then approached Dr. Butts to ask if I had appeared too emotional. He told me that I had done well and began advising me on how to deal with reporters who were becoming interested in the Northside appeal.
WGST, a local all news radio station, asked me to repeat my public statement for airing during the next morning’s drive time. The week before, Atlanta Constitution reporter Bernadette Burden had initiated an article on the seminar series for the paper’s In-town Extra. After the cancellation, Ms. Burden began rewriting the article as a Program of Excellence in Peril.
Northside students appeal to the Atlanta Board of Education:
My multi-racial students addressed the board – articulate, bright, and committed – they greatly impressed the board members who one-by-one conveyed what a good job Northside High was doing by smiling at me while I sat with Dr. Butts, watched, and smiled back. After the meeting adjourned, my students approached Dr. D. F. Glover, the Board President. He attempted to communicate by first calling Northside a rich, white school.
A black student, Dewitt Butler corrected; “Dr. Glover, we’re 75% black and 35% of us are on food stamps.” Dr. Glover found those statistics hard to believe – he stammered, then began backtracking on his words. The students, disappointed that the President of the Board of Education, appeared to be so out of touch with their school that he was setting policy for, began drifting away from him.
Some of the students spoke with TV and radio journalists. A few comments stated by Dewitt Butler were also aired during the WGST morning drive time slot.
Dealings with Atlanta School Board Attorney:
After my plea to the Board, School Board Attorney Warren Fortson came over to me, put his arm around me, and told me to call him in the morning which I did.
Fortson shared with me that he was personally appalled by Dr. Harriss’ handling of the matter but:
- The Superintendent had acted according to regulations
- There was nothing that he or the board members could do about it
- The protocol regulation was ironclad.
I told Mr. Fortson that perhaps he should not be so sure about the protocol regulation being iron-clad. Meanwhile, student disgust over the cancellation percolated all day long. One example was when I returned from lunch and found a sign hanging from my classroom door bearing the word CENSORED across it. Several more groups, in addition to Revelations, had emerged. I assured the student groups that our advocacy possessed the moral high ground and to strictly follow due process.
Dr. Frank Glover called together a Wednesday at 8:30 AM meeting with Mrs. Jackson, Mr. Lancette and me. I had hoped that Dr. Glover would effectively fill the void created by Bill Rudolph’s absence and help negotiate a fair outcome – the students were not accepting anything less. They would not back down and kept the walkout option as leverage. We were all empowered by the due process experience but worried that we were walking on eggshells.
Frank Glover was between a rock and a hard place;
In all fairness to Frank Glover, he had to carry out policy that few people wanted to believe or follow. He was called upon to diffuse the growing student challenge without caving in and re-scheduling the seminar. With no ground to give, Frank Glover was forced to repeat the same false assertions and blame Bill Rudolph. .
- Mr. Rudolph was at fault for taking a trip during this challenging time
- If Mr. Rudolph had informed him in advance, he (Glover) “could have protected Northside” (Mr. Rudolph had.)
- Mr. Rudolph had a made a big mistake in telling Ms. Macfarlane that there might be picketing on May 8, (It would have been a bigger mistake if Mr. Rudolph hadn’t and picketing occurred.)
- That we needed to keep the students – who were fast becoming alienated – under control and focused. (But without meeting them half way.)
Glover was curious about what Warren Fortson had told me. I decided to go public with School Board Attorney’s opinion of Harriss’ action – his remarks were given candidly (to me) but not declared off the record. Fortson’s admission of being appalled by Harriss’ actions stunned Glover who was also losing patience with me.
Glover stood up, looked at me sternly, and once more informed me in a deep tone bordering on intimidation that to fight the protocol regulation was impossible. I told him that he should not be so sure about that.
School Board Attorney Warren Fortson upset with me:
Frank Glover had apparently informed Dr. Harris of Fortson’s statement who I presume was not happy with the School Board Attorney’s remark and had made that clear to him. I was told to call Warren Fortson immediately – he was understandably very furious with me.
Fortson denied making any of the remarks I attributed to him. It was his word against mine. Since I had not recorded him, I decided the wise thing to do for a classroom teacher facing the wrath of the Superintendent and School Board Attorney was to back off.
I “ate crow” and told Fortson that; “I must have misconstrued your remarks.” And apologized for causing him any embarrassment. Mr. Fortson was pleased, said everything was fine, and that “it was in my best interest to let this thing go.” We shook hands and I left.
I next called Board Member Mr. John Elger and let him know about the incident with Warren Fortson. John congratulated me on my “eating crow”. I asked John, a tall congenial man, if he could please use his influence with fellow Board Members to gain their support for re-invitation and revocation of the protocol regulation. John promised me that he would do what he could.
Frank Glover meets with Northside student leaders:
A number of student groups were in direct contact with the media which was in violation of APS policy regarding media relations and regulations. Frank Glover called a 2 PM meeting with the student leaders to calm things down.
Some of the leaders sought advice going into the meeting. I told them that in unity there is strength – most importantly, do not let yourselves be divided by race – racial unity is your shield.
Glover was late to the meeting. While we waited for him, I clarified to the students:
- My grievance actions, though related, were separate from theirs
- The protocol regulation as applied by Dr. Harriss was a virtual censor of the forum and undermined the freedom of speech enjoyed the past 6 to 8 years.
Glover finally appeared. The students were soon visibly annoyed by his insistence that the protocol regulation was a fact of life. Pat McJunkins, a guidance counselor, attended the meeting to counsel students if necessary. Biology teacher Letitia Glover, also no relation to Frank, took notes though the printed up version contained some mistakes. Student Abdul Hicklin recorded an audio tape of the meeting of which numerous copies were made and widely distributed.
Despite talking for nearly half an hour, Glover said only about 5 things of any importance or consequence.
- Glover declared that he had attended at least 3 – 6 seminars. This was possibly true but still only a fraction of the total productions.
- That I had mistakenly sent a letter home to the parents. I instantly protested that that was untrue,
- Glover angrily shouted at me to “shut up” – students tensed, he took it back
- Glover repeated the protocol regulation as giving the Superintendent censorship capability over any subject that might border on political debate.
Glover wore a strained smile while engaging in a tug of war with the students over the protocol regulation and right to censorship. He avoided answering any of the students assertions that all issues are political sooner or later. The students shrugged, then concluded that further engagement was pointless and left.
Glover called a faculty meeting next. He urged teachers not to support any efforts to challenge the protocol. The continuing enforcement of this questionable regulation hardened the half of the faculty that was already questioning him – and antagonized the other half to the point that they united with the questioners.
John Yeargin (Social Studies), Meg Taylor (Math) and others sincerely tried to reason that the protocol regulation forbade even the teaching and discussion of controversial subjects / issues.
Glover continued to wear that strained smile and restate himself over and over. In fairness to Dr. Frank Glover, he was sent to do a tough, thankless job – defend and enforce Dr. Harriss’ action until further notice. Most staff members left the meeting concerned that a walk out was now inevitable, an action the faculty was working hard to prevent.
A silver lining appears:
Before the faculty meeting, Hannah Sumner, one of my students, approached me to present her father’s business card. She said he was schooled in constitutional matters and offered to provide free legal help if I needed it. I thanked Hannah and her dad for their help but wondered if this might be a bit premature.
I knew Bill Sumner from teacher – parent meeting nights and his recruiting his old college room mate former Senator Gary Hart as Distinguished Lecturer back during the 1988 campaign for the Democratic nomination. Sen. Hart was amazed by the quality of the questions on U.S. defense matters that the student interviewers peppered him with. At one point, he looked at me and said; “These questions are tougher and better than the Washington press corps.” Smile.
Dr. Harriss unexpectedly visits Northside High:
The students declared a walkout for Friday at 9:20 AM. About a half dozen students met with me during the morning homeroom. I was wary of public perception of a walkout and urged them to please wait for Mr. Rudolph to return home. At 2:30, the students postponed the walkout and agreed to wait until next week.
Rumors of a Friday morning walkout circulated all over the city. Dr. Harriss and Dr. Norman Thomas unexpectedly appeared in the lunchroom around noon. I thought this was good at first because I hoped for a chance to meet with him and reasonably resolve the issue.
Unfortunately, a group of three black students reported to me that the Superintendent was apparently trying to divide the students along racial lines. A group of two white girls complained to me that they were very disturbed by the sight of this. The Superintendent uttered to students as he passed them in the halls the same distortions that had been invalidated several days before.
Dr. Harriss and I finally cross paths:
It was my lunch period so I walked from my classroom to the office to check my mailbox. Suddenly, Dr. Harriss and Dr. Thomas appeared before me. We both felt awkward, uncomfortably looked at each other, we all stammered a bit. Harriss spoke first and once again spewed the same old distortions – “You sent that letter home, picked a bunch of white kids,” I denied those two charges.
Dr. Harriss resorted to claiming that the reason I didn’t ask him for permission was that he’s black and I would never stoop to asking a black man for permission. At this point, Dr. Harriss appeared slightly out of control. Those charges made me uncomfortable, even nervous that I was possibly jeopardizing myself and the school. But I was determined and chanced trying to ground Dr. Harris once and for all.
I walked up to him, shook his hand, officially introduced myself to him, assured him that I had no quarrel with him, that I loved my school, thought the APS had been very good to me, and it was the best system to work for in the Metro Atlanta region. I assured Dr. Harriss that his being black was irrelevant – the Northside forum had not asked permission in six years – Bill Rudolph had informed Dr. Harris of the scheduling of the seminar – that should have sufficed.
I spoke from my heart to Dr. Harriss – he should have protected Northside High from the past week’s intrusions. Dr. Harriss, listening intently, strongly defended himself by repeating “if only I had asked for him permission”. I asked Dr. Harriss why he expected Mr. Rudolph to have all of the facts – try me.” Dr. Harriss nearly spit and angrily mumbled; “Rudolph! This is all his fault! Wait till he gets home! Man, am I going to take him apart.”
I asserted; “Dr. Harriss, I keep waiting for you to let me give you the facts – is your resistance because I am white?” Dr. Harriss suddenly became quiet for a moment before strangely looking at me as if he had no chance of winning a debate. “Come Norman, we can’t win here, let’s go.” And they turned and left.
Bill Sumner lays out the case against Dr. Harriss:
The uncertainty left with the exchange with Dr. Harriss motivated me to call Bill Sumner and fast. Mr. Sumner informed me that he’d had children in the Atlanta system for over thirty years, another would enter Northside the following year. Bill said he believed in the public schools as the glue of American society and if he was to continue to entrust his own children to the school system, he wanted the best people in place to run it. Mr. Sumner spoke in a soft but firm tone while describing the case:
- Dr. Harriss had acted improperly and there were legal precedents
- I had such a strong case against Harriss that it was too bad that so much turmoil already surrounded Harriss because it would detract from the case
- A case like this appears only a few times in a lawyer’s career.
- Mr. Sumner’s firm would represent me pro bono (free)
- The students also had a case against Harriss and that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was leaning towards representing them
- The students had been deprived of their right to know, right to access to information, right of access to public officials and official sources.
Mr. Sumner pointed out:
- I had an investment / financial stake in my professional career.
- The Forum was a part of my job and had been damaged.
- The financial stake I have in my professional career may have been injured
- I was very possibly due a sizable financial award.
Mr. Sumner left me with this:
- Constitutional law has always been at the center of his love for the legal system
- He had made his living practicing corporate law which had provided his family a good life but he did not have the same passion for it
- This is a case from God that he had been praying for
- Dr. Harriss had embarrassed himself and the Board should remove him
Bill Sumner told me I needed to obtain for him copies of the cancellation letter, protocol regulation, and any other form of documentation. I told Mr. Sumner that I would get the copies to him as soon as possible – the next morning set out to get them. Mr. Sumner had eased my feeling of professional jeopardy and empowered me to pursue the grievance procedure and overturn the protocol regulation.
Student groups merge into a united front:
I met with student leaders to inform them of the legal support that we had just received – this also relieved and empowered them. I sensed that a lot of good was coming from a bad situation – Northside students were:
- Shaking off the apathy that had marked students throughout the 1980’s
- Discovering means of constructively channeling disputes through appropriate channels
- Learning a great deal about South Africa and the national transformation starting to take place.
Turning negatives into positives:
The seminar cancellation had provided an exciting teachable moment that called for innovative approaches. Many of the student leaders were in my two International Relations classes which primarily used handouts for information and questioning. No text or digital tools existed – handouts were the core knowledge source . My instructional and evaluative processes met the needs of two-thirds of the class’s learning modes / styles very well, but one-third were near failing average or below.
The Term Paper course requirement was worth 10% of the class grade. The moment called out to do something different. Numerous video cameras were available from the Media Center and Performing Arts Tech Crew. A majority of the students were enrolled in the School for Performing Arts and/ or manned the Tech Crew. Techies were trained to operate video cameras and computers.
I decided to play to a third of my student’s strengths and swapped the term paper for student groups collaborating on a production of short, simple video taped documentaries on South Africa. The project grade was boosted to 20% of course grade if groups fully followed the format:
- Brief historical overview of South African national development and Apartheid policy construction based around tribal homelands concept
- Short description of African National Congress struggle with National Party, key issues and state of the party’s ongoing negotiations
- Obstacles to over come in working out an equitable power sharing arrangement with blacks outnumbering whites by a factor of 8 to 1
- Include brief interviews with South Africans living in Atlanta and / or experts,
- Creative component – utilize interpretive dance, rap, music, etc. in their production
- Narrated final sequence – apply their peaceful grievance procedure against the canceled seminar to non-violent approaches Dr. King and Civil Rights movement employed to break down segregation and similar tactics being used by Nelson Mandela and the ANC
- This video was to be completed three weeks from the day, June 7, Final Exam day.
The two classes received this challenge very enthusiastically. I reserved space in the Media Center for students to seek information sources, Xerox and video tape narrative materials. Each of the two classes broke into three (3) teams:
- Tech – filmed and edited all video tape
- Research – Developed the script, synthesized the historical, political, and cultural-related materials for inclusion
- Interactive – Selected, created and / or performed entertaining segments, voices for the all narrative segments.
My students were turned on academically and involved to a degree that I might have previously considered unrealistic. I drove over to the Area III office to deliver a letter requesting a copy of the letter of cancellation and protocol regulation as directed by Mr. Sumner. The next morning Dr. Frank Glover scheduled another meeting with Assistant Principals Emma Jackson and Len Lancette and myself.
Bad Cop, Good Cop:
I asked Dr. Glover if he had brought the letter of cancellation and copy of protocol regulation with him and, if so, please give me the copies. Glover ignored me and appeared to assume a bad cop tone. He pressured me to yield to the protocol regulation. I was not intimidated and told him that I had done nothing wrong, was exercising my right to due process, that I was a good teacher and had nothing to fear.”
He said I was “all mouth ”…a loose cannon”….’and had better watch myself.”…”that Bill Sumner was no match for Warren Fortson.” I was holding back my temper and just said; “That’s enough – I suggest that you be careful too or also possibly risk litigation…and you’d be wise not to underestimate Bill Sumner. “
I thought how Mr. Sumner’s legal representation could not have come at a better time. I foresaw the Central Administration’s possibly trying to hang a walkout around my neck or any other irregularity that might occur at this tense time.
Frank Glover, shaken a bit by my resolve, then assumed his good cop demeanor by sticking out his hand to shake mine. Although tired of his game of first abusing me, then shaking my hand, I did so anyway.
Before lunch, I met informally with 8 – 10 student leaders and told them about the ACLU’s offer to represent them. I again urged them not to walk out – to please wait for Mr. Rudolph’s return. “Sit down with him, plan a legal challenge, develop a list of demands and take the ACLU up on its offer as they supposedly had a good chance of winning.”; I counseled.
Legal action is formally taken:
I called Mr. Sumner who told me that he had formalized the legal action. However, he had to leave town to attend his daughter’s college graduation. When no documents had been delivered by late afternoon, I called Mr. Webster, Mr. Sumner’s colleague, who counseled that a subpoena might be necessary. Mr. Webster also instructed me to call Dr. Harriss’ office and re-invite Mr. Pretorious and Mr. Ndaba.
Mr. Webster’s strategy was that since the second seminar was to take place Monday, May 14, the judge might decide the seminars were already history and let it pass. With this in mind, I called Dr. Harriss who was not in so I left this message with his secretary.
Mr. Pretorious and Mr. Ndaba are re-invited:
I next called Mr. Pretorious to re-invite him. He was understandably reluctant at first but quickly agreed to send a letter stating that he would return in the future – the date remained open-ended.
At the end of the school day, Mr. Lancette and Mr. Danell Bateman, Teacher of the Gifted, met with me. Mr. Bateman, who died in 1994, and Mr. Lancette urged caution and that I might be hurting myself and / or the school. They also expressed reservations about the proposed video documentary.
I appreciated their sincere concerns and assured them that I possessed information that they did not and was not in a position to reveal it to them either. “Trust me on this.” I said; “Remember, this wasn’t your seminar that was canceled, it was mine and I must see this through. It is a matter of principle.”
I shared with them Dr. Harriss’ threat to lay the mess on Bill Rudolph – they were bothered by that and Dr. Harriss still not turning over the cancellation letter and protocol regulation. They both sighed wearily, shook my hand, and wished me well.
Bill Rudolph returns home from Israel:
On Saturday morning, May 12, I called Bill Rudolph at home to provide him with an overview of what had happened. He assured me that he had covered his bases by sending a letter to Frank Glover the day before he’d left. I warned him that that might not be enough, and to consider legal representation too. Bill expressed gratitude for the offer and asked that Bill Sumner also contact him.
I informed Rudolph about the South African video term paper project. He said that it was okay but that the kids should not work on that during school time, only in my class. Bill was happy to hear that the project had resulted in linking the Photography and Design teachers who were collaborating with students on the documentary.
Atlanta Constitution Editor Cynthia Tucker blasts Dr. Harriss in newspaper:
Cynthia Tucker, in 1990, was the Editor of the Atlanta Constitution Journal and a nationally known journalist who frequently contributed to the PBS news program ‘The Lehrer Report.” Bill Rudolph was surprised to hear that Ms. Tucker, now a Professor of Journalism, had blasted Dr. Harriss in a morning news editorial and called for him to resign.
I confessed that I was in frequent contact with Ms. Tucker and that she needed the same documents as the lawyers. Bill seemed to have no problem with that or the fact that I’d asked Ms. Tucker to please obtain through her contacts the video segments of Tyrone Brooks speech, my appeal to the Board, and the students pleas to the Board. I prepared Bill that Cynthia Tucker might be including our students comments in a follow up article His reaction – “I’m going to guide this, not stifle it.”
Day of reckoning arrives:
Monday, May 14, finally arrived. I gladly turned over leadership of the student movement to Mr. Rudolph who met with them for a status report. I obtained the two desired documents for Mr. Sumner and Ms. Tucker.
I had helped the students because there appeared to be no one else that they sufficiently trusted or who would risk counseling them. I hate to think what might have happened if I had not.
The case filed against the Atlanta Public Schools now had documentation and evidence. I thanked Mr. Sumner and Mr. Webster for their generous support for me and the seminar series. They assured me that there were principles at stake that they believed in too:
- Academic freedom must be defended,
- The Seminar Series and Forum needed protection and valuing,
- Northside High, and later North Atlanta High, should remain a sanctuary immune from unreasonable community pressures.
End of school year comes quickly:
No further action occurred during the last three weeks of school which ended peacefully. The students turned in their video documentaries and did several creative and entertaining cultural performances in class. My faith in the students rising to the occasion of the video documentary challenge had been confirmed.
The school year ended, the students left for summer vacation, the staff closed up the school. Dr. Harriss’ contract was up in July – there was speculation that the Board might not renew. The turmoil from the cancelled seminar had faded away, no word of movement on the legal action was heard though it was rumored that the lawyers were negotiating a solution.
The news comes while touring Europe:
Communism had collapsed across Europe and I was eager to see these emerging new nations of Central Europe. My wife Sue (who passed away in 2009) and I took off to visit Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia and Estonia. We also toured Scandinavia – Finland, Sweden, Norway by car – and ended our trip in Berlin with a visit to the now free eastern and communist sector.
On the way home to Atlanta, upon boarding the plane, I picked up a copy of USA Today. After the plane was in the air, I noticed an article headline on page 3; “Atlanta system fires superintendent.” Dr. Lester Butts had been appointed the new Superintendent and given a three year contract. I showed Sue – “Look at this news article – Dr. Harriss was let go.” She smiled knowingly about how satisfying an outcome this was for me.
Legal action withdrawn after Dr. Butts appointed Superintendent:
We returned to Atlanta and I called Mr. Sumner. We both expressed satisfaction with outcome. I expressed how pleased I was to have Dr. Butts appointed Superintendent. Bill Sumner revealed; “Arnold, it was always about system stewardship – Dr. Butts is a steadier man and operates only on facts or data. Let us show our support for him by ending this legal action. “ I agreed and said: “It is time for all of us to move on. Thank you Mr. Sumner.”
Northside High and North Fulton High merge to form North Atlanta High School:
The following month, Northside High and its Performing Arts magnet program merged with North Fulton High and its International Studies magnet. The two sister schools on opposite sides of Peachtree Street in Buckhead became the new North Atlanta High School. The mission for the new faculty was to synthesize the excellent Performing Arts and International Studies magnets into a unified school culture. There had been great competition between the two schools and the blending challenge was not going to be easy.
The first 3 years was spent in the undersized North Fulton building, now the Atlanta International School. In 1994, the school moved back into the renovated Northside campus. The combined faculty joined together a second time to open up and produce a great high school. In 2014, North Atlanta will re-locate to the 56 acre site of the former IBP campus on Northside Parkway.
In 1999, Dr. Beverly Hall, Superintendent of the Newark, NJ, school system was hired by the Atlanta Public Schools. Dr. Hall brought her own team to Atlanta and instituted a campaign to boost test scores and raise the graduation rate. Dr. Hall started out in Brooklyn under Dr. J. Jerome Harriss who often referred to Dr. Hall as his protégé. Upon taking over, Dr. Hall hired Dr. Harriss as a consultant for a year or two to provide advisement to the Atlanta Public Schools.
As of April 1, 2013, Dr. Hall was charged with one count of racketeering and 4 counts of fraud and theft by taking that could bring up to 40 years in jail. The prosecutor charges that Dr. Hall, during her tenure:
- Engineered a conspiracy through hierarchal top down pressure
- This pressure fostered a culture of corruption that influenced dozens of administrators, principals and teachers to cheat on standardized tests
- The false boost to student test results was for purposes of personal gain – bonuses, promotions, national recognition, protection from whistle blowers.