The Rev. Jimmie Ray Hawkins, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Durham, N.C., was one of 19 persons arrested last week during a protest at a meeting of the Wake County School Board.
The school board's new 5-4 majority is implementing its plan to scrap the county's school busing system, a move the protesters say will resegregate Wake County's schools, creating racial tensions reminiscent of the 1960s.
"There was more police than you’ve ever seen in your life," Hawkins told the Presbyterian News Service in a July 27 interview. "You had to have a ticket to get in and about 30 of us managed to get into the room." Hawkins said he was clearly identified as a minister because he was wearing a clerical collar.
What the Associated Press described as "a scuffle" in the school board chambers "was not a planned event," Hawkins said. "The Spirit just moved us."
The 19 protestors who were removed and arrested were released by Raleigh (N.C.) police about two hours later. In addition to Hawkins, those arrested included the Rev. William Barber, a Church of Christ pastor and president of the North Carolina NAACP, who was arrested before the meeting started.
Barber was banned from attending after a trespassing arrest at the previous school board meeting. "We know that our cause is right," he told reporters as he was handcuffed and removed from the building.
Hawkins agrees. "I've gotten involved because the clergy and citizens of Wake County are angry and afraid about what’s happening to their community. It IS a question of justice," he said. "I don’t usually go outside of [neighboring] Durham County, but this has implications far beyond Wake County."
Last November, four new members were elected to the Wake County School Board, all campaigning on a platform of "neighborhood schools." Since then a 5-4 majority has repeatedly voted to scrap the district’s diversity policy, which distributed students based on socioeconomic criteria and for years had been a model for school districts all over the country wanting to balance diversity in their schools.
Shortly after the first of the votes last winter, Hawkins convened a group of pastors in Durham and on June 23 submitted a petition signed by 38 of them asking the Wake County board to reverse its actions. The group's motto is "Forward Ever, Backward Never."
After the board dismissed the petition, the pastors' group and the NAACP sponsored a rally in Raleigh on July 20 that drew more than 1,000 citizens. Hawkins pronounced the benediction at the rally. Rally organizers then decided to attend the school board meeting that night, leading to the arrests.
Hawkins, who has been pastor at Covenant Church for 14 years, said he has "been pleasantly surprised at the support" he has received from his congregation. "They say, 'We're proud of you. We're proud you got involved,'" he said.
Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker is reportedly setting up a committee to look into the actions of the Wake County School Board. Along with scrapping the diversity program, the board has officially withdrawn from the state schools association.