They had the look of hostages forced to make a statement while captors off camera pointed a loaded gun at their heads.
And with good reason. Facing down the barrel of Gov. John Englers fast-moving legislation that would take over Detroits public schools and put them under the control of Mayor Dennis Archer, the Board of Education offered an alternative plan last week that members say was approved under extreme duress.
"It hurt, man," board member Alonzo Bates said after the meeting. "We all were pained."
For more than an hour, the board heard passionate pleas from activists who urged that the district hold its ground and fight in court the takeover proposal swiftly making its way toward the governors desk.
The message was clear: People who marched through the 60s South to win voting rights for minorities werent about to quietly accept having a lawful election wiped out in 1999 by a governor they consider to be no friend to minority interests.
Calling up the images of the past, the Rev. Thomas Jackson offered a passionate plea against the plan: "I dont think we should be making concessions," said Thomas. The only weapon anyone has against a politician is their vote. Martin Luther King Jr. died in vain if I give it up."
But abandoned by the districts unions and the citys politically powerful clergy, and with the chance of victory anything but assured in the courts, the board offered up an alternative.
With six members voting in favor and one abstaining after being swayed by the arguments of the audience, the board proposed a power-sharing arrangement that cuts Archer out of the deal and gives an Engler-appointed "monitor" control over most of the districts purse strings and bureaucratic operations. The board would retain dominion over curriculum and its $1.5 billion in bond money.
Whether the proposal will fly is an open question. Neither Archers office nor the Engler administration responded to Metro Times calls seeking comment on the proposal.
If the proposal is accepted, however, it renders moot the option of fighting a takeover in court; the election will not have been negated if the duly elected board willingly hands power over to the governor.
Rep. Lamar Lemmons (D-Detroit), an outspoken critic of Englers plan, called the boards proposal astute.
"As a tactic, I would have voted for it," said Lemmons. "Englers legislation was on the fast track. This throws a monkey wrench into it and gives us more time to strategize."
One advantage of the alternative plan for the board is that it calls for a re-evaluation of the situation within two years, rather than the five proposed by Engler.
At least one board member, however, balked at the characterization of the proposal as a compromise or a delaying tactic. Ben Washburn said he would have voted for this plan regardless of the takeover threat, because it "offers real solutions to a real set of problems."
Others werent so charitable in their evaluation.
"The lesser of two evils," offered Bates, who repeated the contention that the real issue is control of the districts budget and the awarding of lucrative contracts. "Two years ago, when we were $25 million in the red, no one was trying to take us over," he said. "But now that we have a surplus of $97 million, they want to take us over."
"We know this is not the best," said board member Dwayne Haywood, "but our backs are against the wall."
The meeting concluded with board President Darryl Redmond pleading with angry audience members to understand the boards predicament and offer support.
"You dont know how tough it is," he said.
"Were not done fighting because of what we are doing today," added Redmond. "This struggle continues."