On this day in 1954, the US Supreme Court declared the policy of ‘separate but equal’ institutions for Black and white students unconstitutional.
Yet one tiny school district in Bolivar County, Mississippi, has stubbornly fought integration through a series of legal battles spanning decades. Schools in Cleveland, a city literally racially divided by train tracks, remained segregated some 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision until Friday – that’s when a U.S. district court ordered the Cleveland school district to integrate.
U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown of the northern district of Mississippi wrote: “The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally guaranteed right of an integrated education. 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.”
The town’s African-American parents originally filed complaint against the Bolivar County Board of Education 51 years ago, accusing the defendants of continuing to enforce “a policy, custom, practice and usage of operating the public schools of Bolivar County, Mississippi, on a racially segregated basis.”
The Guardian reports while parents won the suit and Black students were allowed to enroll in the all-white high school, a mob of 1,000 white protesters gathered in the streets barring entry.
Illinois Central Railroad tracks separate residents of the west Mississippi town into two factions: whites families to the west and Black families to the east. The district’s middle and high schools mirror this divide. In fact, the majority Black high school is called East Side high. White children attend Cleveland on the west side.
Judge Brown called for consolidation in all secondary schools, giving the district just three weeks to implement a unified system. The presently segregated schools will be eliminated and the student bodies will join to form one high school and one middle school.
“Six decades after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared that ‘separate but equal has no place’ in public schools, this decision serves as a reminder to districts that delaying desegregation obligations is both unacceptable and unconstitutional,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a statement.
“This victory creates new opportunities for the children of Cleveland to learn, play and thrive together. 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.”
The National Post reports the newly consolidated middle school will have an enrollment of 692 students, 71 percent Black and 26 percent white, while the consolidated high school’s estimated 1098 students will be 63 percent Black and 32 percent white.
While the school board has not issued an official statement, CNN reports district supervisors held a closed-door meeting Monday night. When asked for comment, one official declined, citing “ongoing litigation.”
According to affiliate WATN, the board sent a letter to parents expressing concern that the changes would work against student progress.
“It is the desire of the Cleveland School District to continue this course of success for the betterment of all students,” the letter said.
“The Board believes the Department of Justice’s plan would limit choices of both parents and students, disrupt proven successes occurring at all schools and ignore the interests of the community as a whole.”