Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson is offering to help bridge racial divisions in Kamiah, Idaho, where two weeks ago students walked out of school to protest not having Martin Luther King Day off.
In a letter to Kamiah High School principal Joe Anderson, Jackson said he supports the students.
“I was surprised. I don’t know who told him about it,” said Kamiah School Superintendent Norman Winters.
Jackson asked the district to reconsider the detentions given to the students. He called for racial healing.
“Let us begin at Kamiah High by convening a daylong colloquium to resolve the underlying anxieties and racial tensions that have arisen from this incident,” Jackson wrote. “I am willing to help in any way you, the parents and students would find useful.”
Some parents interpret that as an offer by Jackson to come to Kamiah, a town of about 1,200 located 60 miles east of Lewiston. Some residents say the town has been uneasy due to disputes over reservation boundaries and Indian fishing and hunting rights.
“He (Jackson) is a very charismatic person and I think he could bring a lot of people to the table,” said Jo Ann Kauffman, a Nez Perce parent. “There’s a majority of people here who kind of like to bury their heads in the sand.”
Kauffman is chairwoman of the Indian Student Parent Committee, which marched in support of the students three days after the walkout.
In Washington, D.C., Jackson press secretary Teresa Caldwell said late Monday that she wasn’t familiar with the details of the letter and wouldn’t be able to research it until today.
Kauffman said she was contacted by Seattle members of Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition shortly after the student walkout. She said they asked for newspaper accounts of the incident, which she sent them.
Kamiah has gained notoriety in the past few years as home to “Almost Heaven,” a “Constitutional covenant’ community developed by former Green Beret James “Bo” Gritz.
Gritz ran for vice president on the 1988 Populist Party ticket with former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke, prompting questions about Gritz’s racial views. Gritz vehemently denies he or his followers are racists.
“I’d like to see Jesse Jackson, a former presidential candidate, get the same red carpet treatment that Bo Gritz gets every time he shows up in town,” said Kauffman.
At the school district office, superintendent Winters said he thinks the walkout has been blown far out of proportion.
Granted, he said, the district didn’t hold an assembly on Martin Luther King Day. But Winters said students watched King videos and discussed the civil rights struggle in government classes. Teachers also put up civil rights posters throughout district schools, he said.
If Jackson visits, he’d be welcome, Winters said.
“If he wants to come, I’ll talk with anybody,” he said.
Winters took exception to Jackson’s statement that “The students acted with courage and moral vision.”
The vast majority of the students, the superintendent said, just wanted a day off. He said many simply went to the parking lot and played soccer.
“There’s not a kid alive that wants to go to high school too badly,” he said. “Their detention is because they broke school rules, not because they stood up for their principles.”
He said most parents are solidly behind the school’s decision to give the protesters detentions.
But Kauffman said the underlying racial tension continues.
When the parents’ march was being planned, she said, white parents received phone calls urging them not to march. No one called the Indian parents, about 25 of whom marched.
In a letter to the school board, the Indian parents’ committee called on the district to:
Recruit and hire Indian faculty and administrators. About 20 percent of the district’s students are Indian.
Set aside construction jobs and contracts for Indians.
Turn over records regarding corporal punishment. The district paddles some students, and the parents’ group fears that cultural differences put Indian children more at risk of physical punishment than other children.
Although the rallying point was Martin Luther King Day, Kauffman said, the other issues are just as important.
“We’re talking about trying to raise the level of awareness at the school district,” she said.
Winter said district hiring is color-blind, without racial discrimination - or preference.
“There are very few applications of Native Americans,” he said. All are carefully considered, he said. “The person that has the best qualifications gets it (the job),” he said.
Any paddling, he said, is allowed only with parent permission, in front of a witness, and never is done in anger.
“It’s very rare,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo