DECATUR, ILL. — About 150 years ago, a tiny hamlet on the flat-as-sheet-metal plains of central Illinois became the improbable incubator for one of America's great civil rights defenders.
It was in Decatur's log-cabin courthouse that a lanky lawyer named Abraham Lincoln argued some of his first cases. In 1860, he launched his presidential bid here.
Since those frontier days, Decatur has become a grimy, smokestack-laden place that's home to one of the globe's biggest agribusiness firms. The world's biggest dump trucks are made here, too.
But recently Decatur has again become the unlikely genesis point for a major civil rights crusade.
Jesse Jackson was arrested here Tuesday protesting the school board's punishment of six black high- schoolers who started a fight at a football game.
The Rev. Mr. Jackson's arrest has turned Decatur into a national flashpoint for the growing debate over school zero-tolerance policies - and how harshly students should be punished under them. Also at issue: whether zero-tolerance policies unfairly target minorities.
Originally, the school board expelled the boys for two years. After Jackson first intervened, the board reduced it to a one-year expulsion with the teens allowed to attend alternative schools. But Jackson said that wasn't enough. He wants the board to reevaluate the boys' behavior on a case-by-case basis in January - and possibly reinstate them in school.
In Decatur - and perhaps nationwide - this isn't seen as just a 1960s-style altercation between blacks and whites. It's a struggle between those in town whose watchwords are "personal responsibility" and "accountability," and those whose mantras are "rights" and "compassion."
Take Betsy Stockard, a city council member who is black. She originally pushed for leniency for the youths. But after viewing a videotape of the fight, she changed her view. She's now pushing for tough punishment - and has even led "Stop the Violence" marches to counter Jackson's protests.
She and others argue that education is a privilege, and if kids blow it, too bad. They say safety is paramount - and that other students won't be able to learn if a few are allowed to misbehave. Furthermore, if the boys aren't reined in now, they'll never learn.
Jackson and others counter that education is a right. No matter what, they say, kids must be groomed to succeed in the world. He worries that, across the nation, compassion and tolerance are being elbowed aside by zero-tolerance policies, which three-quarters of all US schools now have. In all our toughness, he says, "we have to be tolerant."
At a series of floorboard-rattling rallies at a big black church in town, Jackson has energized the faithful -and chastised the fighters. "We made a mistake," Jackson made the boys repeat together, as they stood, somewhat sheepishly, in the front row of the church. "We apologize, and we thank the community for standing by us."
Jackson has been careful to not overtly play the race card - and has largely spoken of it as an issue of fairness and proportional punishment. He invokes the case of a white student who recently got only a three-day suspension for making a bomb threat at the school.
But there are unmistakable racial undertones to his arguments. "Our schools are becoming feeder systems for our jails," he says, implicitly raising the fact that about one-third of all black males are incarcerated or on parole.
He raises the question of whether zero-tolerance policies unfairly target minorities. Indeed, nationwide blacks made up just 17 percent of the K-12 population in 1994, but they accounted for 33 percent of all suspensions, according to the latest figures available from the US Department of Education. In Illinois the race gap for expulsions is even greater. (See chart.)
These figures hardly prove that educators are biased in expulsion and suspension decisions. But they do show that if expulsions and suspensions jump amid increasing zest for zero-tolerance, black students will be affected more than whites.
To many blacks here, such policies - especially if unfairly implemented - risk putting a roadblock in the path toward empowerment through education.
Nationwide, blacks have made gains in education over the past decade, but they still lag behind whites.
In 1997, 81.4 percent of whites age 25 and older had finished high school. For blacks, the number was 66.2 percent, according to the US Department of Education.
"Two years would just put them back further," says Eric Talley, a junior at an area high school, who wore a black stocking cap and baggy jeans as he watched Jackson get arrested. "Why give them time on their hands to go down a road they wouldn't otherwise go down?"
But school-board supporters argue the boys should have known better than to fight, and that now they must pay the consequences. Furthermore, in this post- Columbine era, the schools must be tough on violent kids.
"The fourth 'R' is 'responsibility,' " says Dianna Wagner, a secretary at St. Patrick's Roman Catholic elementary school. "And hopefully these kids - and all the kids in Decatur - will learn more about it because of this incident."
In the meantime, the standoff between Jackson and the school board continued yesterday -and appeared headed to court.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society