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Ed Hightower on police reform: No one can afford to stay on the sidelines

Madison County Record

Wednesday, June 24, 2020  |  Article  |  By The Madison County Record

Minorities (66) , Police (28)

EDWARDSVILLE - Ed Hightower, who reached the top in his educational and sports careers, started pressing for better police practices in retirement and has pressed harder since the death of George Floyd. 

“America has had enough of the systemic racism, brutal and unnecessary deaths to black Americans,” he told hundreds at a rally in Alton on June 14. 

“Millions and millions are giving voice to the grief and anger that generations of black Americans have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system,” he said. “History is being written and no one can afford to stay on the sidelines.” 

In an interview on June 16, he said, “There is a great awakening now. We have a chance to do better. 

“Our police force is going to be representative of our community. If it isn’t done, that’s a problem. 

He added that equality is not solely about policing.

“It’s about reinvestment, better housing, better education,” he said. 

Local leaders shouldn’t wait for problems in African-American communities to reach out to community leaders, he said. 

“You have to do it before, so you have credibility,” he said. 

He said people have to believe they are being treated fairly. 

“Treat people like you want to be treated,” he said. “You’re going to get cooperation in return.” 

As basketball referee, Hightower officiated at 12 Final Four tournaments of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. 

He blew his whistle at global competitions in Argentina and Russia, and Europeans chose him as neutral referee for their championship in 1993. 

On the other track in his career, Edwardsville’s school board hired Hightower as its first black superintendent in 1996. 

“In 1996, we had very few African-American employees,” he said. “We made an effort and that was a priority of the community. 

“We wanted to get that done and we had them when we left. As a result, guess what? The community was growing.” 

Hightower grew up in Missouri’s Bootheel and picked cotton. 

He said he was the second oldest of eight children, six boys and two girls. 

His parents divorced and his mother had an opportunity to move with the children to Alton in 1966. 

He graduated from Alton High in 1970, and enrolled at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. 

He started refereeing intramural basketball for $1.25 a game. 

When he got a teaching job, he said, he got a raise to $5. 

He said referee Ralph Leinecke, a math teacher at East Junior High in Alton, told him he had a chance to make it, but that he couldn’t do it himself. 

Leinecke told him, “I’ll take you where I referee. I’ll do the varsity games and you’ll do the JV or sophomore games.” 

He said Leinecke told him, “You’ll hear comments but it’s up to you to hear but not respond.” 

Hightower said, “I kept my mouth shut and worked hard.” 

He lasted 36 years on college hardwood, calling his last game at Iowa City in 2013. He retired as Edwardsville superintendent in 2015, after seeing enrollment grow from about 5,000 to about 7,000 in 19 years. 

Hightower didn’t quit working. 

He started the Leadership Council of Madison County, which arranged meetings with police throughout the county. 

In 2018, Hightower wrote in a report that the initiative resulted in addition of 13 African Americans, women, and other minorities to the law enforcement workforce. 

He wrote that Alton police added two African Americans, the first in more than 15 years, and Alton hired an African American jailer; Roxana hired its first African American officer; Pontoon Beach hired a Hispanic officer and a bilingual dispatcher. 

“Events will occur in the future which will test the unity and resolve of people in our area,” he wrote.