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After Decades-Long Legal Battle, Mississippi School District Ordered to Desegregate

More than six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” has no place in the nation’s public school system, a federal court has ordered the schools in a small Mississippi town to finally integrate.

By Jenny Jarvie

More than six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” has no place in the nation’s public school system, a federal court has ordered the schools in a small Mississippi town to finally integrate.


Cleveland, a city halfway between Memphis and New Orleans in the Mississippi Delta, has long been divided by a railroad track that separates east from west and black from white. More than two-thirds of the local school district’s 3,700 students are African American. Half of its schools are all black or nearly so.


Children who grow up on the east side attend the predominantly black D.M Smith Middle School and East Side High School. To the west, white children have historically attended Margaret Green Junior High School and Cleveland High School.


This amounts to a dual system, in violation of the Constitution, according to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. In a 96-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown concluded that Cleveland School District had failed to meet its obligation to desegregate and ordered it to merge its middle and high schools. She rejected as unconstitutional the district’s alternative proposals of open enrollment or a combined middle school with two racially balanced high schools.


“The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education,” she wrote in her opinion released late Friday. “Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the District to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden.”


On Tuesday, the Cleveland School District issued a statement saying its board believes its alternative proposals were not only constitutional but in the “best interest of students, parents and the community.” Its board is reviewing the court opinion and considering options for appeal.


Cleveland schools have been the subject of litigation for more than half a century. In 1965, more than a decade after Brown vs. Board of Education struck down state laws establishing racially separate public schools, 131 children, acting through their parents or guardians, filed an action seeking the desegregation of their school system.  They alleged that officials were “operating the public schools of Bolivar County, Mississippi, on a racially segregated basis.”


Four years later, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi ordered the school district to be “permanently enjoined from discriminating on the basis of race or color” and directed it to “take affirmative action to disestablish all school segregation and to eliminate the effects of the dual school system.”  


Black students were allowed to enroll in the all-white Cleveland High. Yet the school district went on to adopt an informal “dual residence” practice, allowing students to attend schools in zones outside of their residence if the student established a second residence during the week. According to the federal government, this tactic in effect served to maintain segregated schools.


In 1985, the U.S. intervened, asserting that the school district had “frustrated the implementation” of the court order and “impeded the elimination of the vestiges of the dual system of public education.”


After another decade of legal sparring, the dispute died down for 16 years until 2011, when the federal government filed a motion asking the court to order Cleveland to “implement a desegregation plan that will immediately dismantle its one-race schools.”


In court, parents of many backgrounds – black and white – spoke of their hope that future generations would learn in a diverse environment.


"We can break down this wall of racism that divides us and keeps us separated,” testified the Rev. Edward Duvall, a black parent with two children in Cleveland schools. "We could create a new culture in our school system that’s going to unite us and unite our whole city."


In her opinion, Judge Brown concluded that the school district had failed to meet its obligation to desegregate. Under the U.S. Justice Department’s plan approved by the court, the district will merge the town’s middle and high schools.  The school system has three weeks to set out a timeline for desegregation.


The Justice Department welcomed the ruling.


“This victory creates new opportunities for the children of Cleveland to learn, play and thrive together,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement released Monday.  “The court’s ruling will result in the immediate and effective desegregation of the district’s middle school and high school program for the first time in the district’s more than century-long history.”


Cleveland is not the only district in the nation with racially segregated public schools.  


A report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office found that schools across the country are becoming increasingly segregated by race and income. The number of public schools that were both poor and racially segregated has more than doubled from 7,009 in the 2000-01 school year to 15,089 in 2013-14.


“This research reflects a sad reality: the color of your skin is more likely to determine whether you have access to a high-quality, well-resourced and diverse public school,” Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project, said in a statement. 


“If we continue to allow broad swaths of our nation’s students of color to attend schools with less experienced teachers, disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion, and fewer advanced classes and support services, we will further perpetuate the second class citizenship we have fought so hard to overcome.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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