Two of the city’s most well-known and scrutinized leaders will take their final bows in a few weeks.
Dr. Don Martin, who has led Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools as superintendent for the last 18 years, will retire on June 30. At around the same time, Scott Cunningham, the city’s police chief for the last five years, will retire as well, leaving behind a more than 30-year law enforcement career.
The black community has had a love/hate relationship with both men. It is almost innate for us – black folks – to be skeptical toward the education and law enforcement systems. Historically, neither has treated us particularly well. In fact, both have treated us – particularly our young men – as inferior undesirables.
One could say that Martin and Cunningham already had the deck stacked against them when they first set foot in Forsyth County. Some of their harshest critics may disagree, but we saw both men trying to build bridges and knock down decades-old walls of distrust.
Martin has faced the many daggers that have been thrown his way head-on. He has never hidden behind the walls of the administrative building. He has faced parents, students and critics directly and steadfastly defended the school system, regardless of how screwed-up the policy.
When the School Board passed the redistricting plan in the 1990s, it was Martin’s job to implement it. And as in every case, Martin did his job very well. Racial diversity at schools countywide disappeared faster than a rabbit in a hat at a magic show. The plan quickly drew critics who pointed out the harsh facts: the now all-black schools lacked students, quality teachers and other resources. Instead of admitting to the obvious, Martin chose the glass as half-full approach, pointing out things like the benefits of neighborhood schools and the fact that parents could still choose among several schools for their kids.
More than two decades after redistricting, inner-city schools are seeing the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, largely because dedicated principals, staffs, faculties and community volunteers have taken students tightly under their wings and refused to let them fail. Martin and the School Board have also played a part in the recent successes at schools like Kimberley Park, Winston-Salem Prep and Atkins, but we can’t help but wonder if the years of putting on blinders and ignoring the problems stalled success that could have come a decade ago.
Cunningham came to town determined to wipe the slate clean between the Police Department and the black community. He scored points by making the department and himself more accessible. He held weekly news briefings, giving members of the media the opportunity to quiz him on any subject. He offered members of the public that same ability by staging a series of “Meet the Chief” events in communities throughout the city. Cunningham also inspired confidence with the sweeping new patrol strategy he ushered in. The plan has been credited with lowering the crime rate.
Cunningham’s faults were similar to Martin’s. Like the chiefs before him, including the city’s first black police chief, Patricia Norris, he was too timid in admitting the department’s faults, past and present. Without question, cops fudged facts and intimidated witnesses to get a conviction in the Darryl Hunt case. The truth came to light for Hunt, 20 years after he served time for a crime he did not commit, but who knows how many others were railroaded? Cunningham and all the chiefs over the last two decades have all but refused to admit that police may have been slack in the Kalvin Michael Smith investigation, even though the writing on the wall clearly says that they were.
And when it came time for Cunningham to back-up his cred as a true community advocate, he chose to be like every other cop when he refused to admit that the department’s license check points policy was designed to target communities of color.
The city recently held a public forum to give residents the opportunity to meet and question the three men vying to be the next police chief. Cunningham took part in a similar forum five years ago before he was hired. While we admire the city for being upfront with the process, we have very little faith that such forums can gauge what type of chief we’ll see once he is sworn-in and perched behind his desk at headquarters.
Dr. Beverly Emory, Martin’s successor, is ready to step into his shoes. We hope she learns from Martin, the good and the bad, and does a better job of truly bringing Equity-plus Schools up to par.