The Rockford School desegregation case continues, but if the actions of the federal magistrate’s supporters are any indication, the tide is turning in favor of the citizens of Rockford. Stunned by recent electoral and courtroom setbacks, the leader of the local N,A4CP, a Rockford alderman, the mayor, and the superintendent of schools (all black) resorted to the last refuge of the modern scoundrel, and played the race card. What they didn’t realize, however, is that—after nine years of federal control and $166 million—race no longer trumps rational discussion in Rockford.

The tide began to turn in November, when voters in the school board election re-elected Patti Delugas, a veteran fighter on behalf of Rockford’s citizens, and elected Ted Biondo, a member of the board of directors of the grassroots organization Rockford Educating All Children (R.E.A.CH.). Although both faced well-funded candidates who supported the court order (and consequently had the support of the mayor), both won landslide victories. With the addition of Biondo to the board, a majority of board members now oppose federal control of Rockford’s schools.

The day after the election, state circuit court judge John Rapp ruled that the main funding mechanism for the desegregation “remedies,” the tort fund, was illegal. Under state law, all governmental bodies are required to have a tort fund to cover the cost of paying damages in a civil lawsuit. But in the Rockford case, civil damages—which would be paid directly to the plaintiffs—have never been levied. Instead, the school district and the federal magistrate’s appointed master have been given a blank check to remedy discrimination. The result has been the destruction of Rockford, as those — white, black, and Hispanic —who can afford to move out of town have fled skyrocketing property taxes, while thousands of children have been bused across town, and both test scores and housing values have plummeted.

Despite Judge Rapp’s ruling, in December federal magistrate P. Michael Mahoney ordered the school board to vote to levy $36.6 million more in tort taxes, and backed his order with the threat of jail, fines, and the possible removal of board members who didn’t vote for the levy. Voting under protest, and decrying the loss of democratic self-rule, board members Biondo, Delugas, and David Strommer—all staunch opponents of the federal order—voted for the tort levy. They have since filed suit to gain intervenor status in the case, claiming that the magistrate, by ordering them to vote a particular way, denied them their basic rights as officeholders. Should they gain intervenor status, their first action would be to have Magistrate Mahoney removed from the case.

During the debate on the tort levy, citizens had the opportunity to address the board, and Rockford received a foretaste and promise of things to come. Steve Bland, the pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church (one of the largest black churches in Rockford), displayed a stunning disregard for the legal system by asking, “If the tort fund was right before [Judge Rapp’s ruling declaring its use illegal], why is it wrong now?” Roy Dawson, the chairman of the local NAACP, told board members that if they didn’t vote for the tort levy, “this community [the black community in Rockford] is going to rise up, and rise up beyond your ability to control it.” Later that night, when Dawson saw Mary Hitchcock, one of the founders of R.E.A.CH., wearing a teabag as a silent protest against taxation without representation, he responded, “Maybe we’ll start wearing shackles.” While the local Gannett paper ran extensive coverage of Bland’s and Dawson’s remarks, it failed to mention—indeed, has always failed to mention—that both Bland and Dawson benefit from the illegal tort levy: Bland’s wife is employed by the school district, and her salary comes entirely from the tort fund, and Dawson’s wife is a principal at a Rockford high school, and therefore has discretionary authority over tort spending. A good reporter or a competent editor might find such details important.

Dawson continued his scare tactics two months later, attempting to prevent Biondo, Delugas, and Strommer from speaking at a Rockford Institute-sponsored rally on judicial taxation by smearing Institute president and Chronicles‘ editor Thomas Fleming as a white supremacist. His proof? According to a press release Dawson sent out on February 16 (the day of the rally, “The Rockford NAACP has learned that Thomas Fleming . . . is a national board member of the League of the South.” Chronicles readers may find it hard to believe that the NAACP “learned” this fact at such a late date, since discussions of the League and Dr. Fleming’s membership have appeared in Chronicles for over four years now. Indeed, even the local Gannett paper has mentioned the League, most recently in October, four months before Dawson “learned” that Dr. Fleming is a board member (perhaps Dawson only reads the articles that mention him).

The fact that the League of the South specifically rejects racism and white supremacy (and has been attacked by racist and white supremacist groups) didn’t deter Dawson, nor did it stop Alderman Victory Bell, Mayor Charles Box, or Superintendent Ronald Epps from jumping on the libel bandwagon after the Institute’s “Rally for Rockford” attracted over 500 people to the Rockford Woman’s Club on a cold and rainy Monday night. Since Mayor Box is a lawyer, his decision to repeat Dawson’s libelous charges was surprising enough; but Box went a step further, declaring that any opposition to the federal court’s decision was equivalent to open revolt against the federal government and suggesting that Dr. Fleming, the League, and The Rockford Institute might want to restore slavery.

It’s not surprising that Box, Epps, Dawson, and other supporters of Magistrate Mahoney’s tyrannical actions have resorted to the race card; after all, they clearly can’t win on the issues. Furthermore, they see their power structure crumbling around them, in part because of The Rockford Institute’s previous forum on the school issue, which has been credited with revitalizing grassroots opposition to Rockford’s political machine. Ironically, their attacks on Dr. Fleming and the Institute have solidified support for both, and have exposed the real fault line in Rockford—not between the races, but between those who believe that the citizens of Rockford should control their own destiny and those who will stop at nothing to maintain their own power.