Lawsuit: High School Bars Black Valedictorian

July 26, 2011  |  

By Alexis Garrett Stodghill

A young, African-American mother of Pine Bluff, Arkansas is suing her school district for preventing her from being sole valedictorian of her graduating high school class. Kymberly Wimberly claims that she earned all A’s and only one B in her four-year career at McGehee Secondary School, which included both Honors and Advanced Placement courses. In a law suit filed in federal court, Ms. Wimberly claims that she was forced to be co-valedictorian with a white student even though this student had lower grades because of her race. Wimberly asserts that this decision was part of a pattern of poor treatment of black students by school officials. Courthouse News reports:

Kimberly says that despite earning the highest G.P.A. of the Class of 2011, and being informed of it by a school counselor, “school administrators and personnel treated two other white students as heir[s] apparent to the valedictorian and salutatorian spots.”

Wimberly’s mother is the school’s “certified media specialist.” She says in the federal discrimination complaint that after her daughter had been told she would be valedictorian, the mother heard “in the copy room that same day, other school personnel expressed concern that Wimberly’s status as valedictorian might cause a ‘big mess.'”

McGehee Secondary School is predominantly white, and 46 percent African-American, according to the complaint. Bratton says that the day after she heard the “big mess” comment, McGehee Principal Darrell Thompson, a defendant, told her “that he decided to name a white student as co-valedictorian,” although the white student had a lower G.P.A.

Kymberly’s mother tried to protest this decision but was told by the school board that she would be unable to do so until after her daughter’s graduation. Mistakes in her application to speak before the board were cited as the cause of this request being dismissed. Ms. Wimberly is suing for financial compensation “for constitutional violations, and an injunction declaring her sole valedictorian of the school’s Class of 2011,” according to Courthouse news.

It’s hard to believe that this young woman would create an intricate web of lies that could easily be determined as such, if she were not telling the truth. In Gawker’s post on this controversy, writer Maureen O’Connor revealed this high school’s previous racial row over a black versus white homecoming queen. Plus, Courhouse news reminds us that McGehee Secondary School is “southeast of Little Rock” — in an obvious reference to the violent integration of that town’s high school in the late ’50s.

Clearly, there is a pattern of difficulty in this area when blacks and whites are forced to mix because of their schooling.

This situation is similar to the one in Morgan Freeman’s Mississippi home town. He offered to pay for an integrated prom for his high school alma mater — but both parents and the school board ignored his offer — which was made in 1997. It would take 11 years for the “adults” in charge to create a space in which black and white students could socialize respectfully. The national media attention probably helped. While this is appalling, it’s not really so surprising.

These small towns, where lynching and segregation were once rampant, still contain racist weeds. They just persist in a more covert fashion than was obviously exposed during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. These weeds will keep cropping up until the roots of racism are exterminated. That can only be done by changing what is in people’s hearts. There is no law that can enforce such a change. It takes the personal examination of one’s conscience.

When Little Rock High School was integrated by a handful of brave black students, who were protected by the National Guard while white parents hurled insults at them, their placement in those classrooms did not change what was in people’s hearts. Those people raised families whose descendants likely live in surrounding Arkansas towns today. Integration was enforced in Little Rock to give blacks equal access to quality education. No actions were taken to train residents to be good human beings.

As a direct result of forced integration, Kymberly Wimberly has received that best education possible. Because she shared classrooms with white students, and was not shuttled off to “black” schools (which often receive substandard resources), Kymberly could take Honors and AP classes and have the best GPA. It is because of that integrated environment. For this reason alone, we should all be glad. The sacrifices of those students who integrated Little Rock paved the way for Kymberly to get a great education today.

Wimberly is using her personal success to take the fight for education equality a little further. By suing her school district, she is attacking the roots of racism that live on in people’s souls. It can’t be legislated away, but it must be fought regardless, with whatever tools are available. Hopefully, as generations pass and ignorant leaders fall out of power, students can truly enjoy judgment based only on their achievements. But before then, we must fight.

Kymberly’s demand that she be recognized now for what she truly deserves might make those in power examine themselves, and provide inspiration for them to become better people. At the very least, this law suit will wake people up to the fact that the weeds of racism still persist. This is not a “post-race” America. If we want to ever get there, we must remain aware, persistent and vigilant.

Kymberly Wimberly’s law suit against McGehee Secondary School is that wake up call trumpeting the fact that as a nation, we still have work to do.

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