Lawsuit: Arkansas high school denied black student status as class’ sole valedictorian

Posted on 26 Jul 2011 at 12:46pm

On Sunday, same-sex couples began marrying in New York, the sixth state where such unions are legal. It was certainly a big step forward in the battle for LGBT equality. But it seems that every time equality takes one step forward in one place, something happens somewhere else that takes us all two steps — or three, or four — back.

The day after same-sex marriages started in New York, I found this story about a high school principal in McGeHee, Ark., who decided to name a white student as co-valedictorian of the 2011 senior class, even though a black student had a higher GPA and should have been named the class’ sole valedictorian.

(I am not trying to start a debate here about whether the LGBT civil rights movement is the same as the black civil rights movement. I am just saying that there’s a long way to go when it comes to equality for everyone.)

Kymberly Wimberly, 18, got only one B — the rest of her grades were all As — during her years at McGehee Secondary Schools, even though her class schedule had always been loaded down with honors and advanced placement classes, according to a report by Courthouse News Service. Even though, as Wimberly’s senior year drew to a close, she had the highest GPA in the class — something her school guidance counselor had already told her — Principal Darrell Thompson decided to name a white student as co-valedictorian because he didn’t want people to be upset that the school, where a majority of students are white, had a black valedictorian, according to Wimberly and her mother, Molly Bratton.

News reports, by the way, indicate that 46 percent of the student body at McGehee is black. So the white majority isn’t really a big majority at all.

Bratton, a media specialist for the school district, has said she overheard someone saying that there would be “a big mess” over the idea of a black student being valedictorian, and right after that, the principal told her a white co-valedictorian was being named. When Bratton tried to talk to the school board about the situation, the superintendent, a black man named Thomas Gathen, told her she could address the board because she had filled out the wrong form requesting to speak, and that she couldn’t appeal his decision until the June board meeting — well after the May graduation ceremony.

Wimberly and Bratton have now filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, Principal Thompson and Superintendent Gathen, saying that the decision and school officials’ actions were discrimination based on Wimberly’s race. And, Bratton says, the situation with her daughter is part of an ongoing trend of discrimination within the school district. She says school officials routinely discourage black students from taking the honors and advanced placement classes, telling them — among other things — that the work would be too hard for them.

School have no commented yet on the lawsuit, according to published reports like this one from MSNBC.

Let me say right now that I realize I’ve only heard one side of the story — Wimberly and Bratton’s side, as it has been reported in the press. Maybe school McGeHee School District officials had some valid reason for naming a “co-valedictorian” with a lower GPA than Wimberly. Maybe they had a good reason for not allowing Bratton to talk to the school board. I can’t think of a good reason, but hey, maybe they have one.

What I do know is that as it stands now, this looks like another incident of racism once again rearing its head in the same state where 54 years ago the governor defied federal law and called out his state’s National Guard troops to prevent black students from attending what had been an all-white high school (see this article about the Little Rock Nine). McGeHee is, after all, only about 55 miles from Little Rock, where in 1957 President Eisenhower had to deploy federal troops to force the integration of Little Rock Central High.

My wife said to me last night when she first saw reports of the Wimberly case online: “What year is this? 1957? I thought this was 2011!” Yes, it is 2011. But the hatred and the discrimination — based on race, based on gender, based on sexual orientation or any other characteristic that sets us apart from others — are still out there. And no matter how many states let gays get legally married now, as long as discrimination exists anywhere against anyone, equality for all of us remains in jeopardy.

Arkansas National Guard troops block The Arkansas Nine from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957, despite federal laws — and instructions from President Eisenhower — preventing integration.

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