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He Called The School Board Racist. Now, He’s Joined It.

DECATUR, Ill. — Back when he was a member of a notorious street gang, Courtney Carson was as loyal as they come. When he heard that a confidant had flipped from the Black Stones to the rival Gangster Disciples, he rounded up some friends and confronted the defector at a high school football game.

The warring sides stomped up the stadium’s concrete bleachers, taunting each other. Then someone threw a punch. In no time, fists and feet were flying and the crowd was running for cover.

It was 1999 and the Decatur school board responded swiftly, expelling Mr. Carson and five classmates, all of them black, for two years. The punishment, which was eventually cut in half, polarized this central Illinois city, largely along racial lines, and drew thousands of civil rights activists to town. Suddenly, a thriving industrial mecca became a center of racial strife.