The district’s lack of adherence to the Constitution was no accident
When schools were originally ordered to desegregate newspapers were still reporting on the McCarthy hearings.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a funk because you can’t stop thinking about the injustices produced by institutional racism, you start looking for little victories to hold on to—triumphs that prove hope is worth nurturing. One of those soothing victories might be, “Well, at least Brown v. Board of Education legally enforced integration in schools.” But, somehow, the city of Cleveland, Mississippi has managed to sidestep that legal mandate from 1954 and keep its school system almost entirely segregated along racial lines for the past 62 years.
Until today. The town that wishes time forgot was just ordered by the United States District Court for The Northern District of Mississippi to integrate its schools once and for all. A plan devised by the United States orders that School District Four in Bolivar County will “beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, assign all students in 9th-12th grades to a single comprehensive high school housed in the current Cleveland High and Margaret Green facilities. It also calls for all faculty and staff currently assigned to the two high schools to be re-assigned to the consolidated high school.”
And if you read the 96-page ruling published with the decision, it makes clear that this lack of adherence to the Constitution wasn’t just some 60-year accident. District Four has actively been stalling integration efforts for decades—despite numerous instances of legal intervention—maintaining black schools on the city’s east side and white schools on the west.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]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.[/quote]
If you’re wondering how in the hell this has been allowed to happen, here is a brief history of the bad decisions made by educators in Cleveland, Mississippi.
The first attempt to force District Four to integrate after Brown v. BOE was made in 1965, when 131 black children filed a complaint (through their parents) saying their school system was continuing to enforce segregation practices despite the landmark court case making it unconstitutional 11 years prior. In 1969 a judge ordered the district to integrate populations and “locate any new school and substantially expand any existing schools with the objective of eradicating the vestiges of the dual school system.”
Sixteen years later, in 1985, the courts had to intervene again, because District Four’s efforts to combine populations were wildly insufficient, despite being held to account with annual and quarterly status reports meant to track their “progress.” The court found that 19 years after the initial complaint against District Four’s segregation policies, it was still hiring staff and administrators for schools based on race (white teachers for white schools, black teachers for black schools), building new schools “in areas such that black students continue to attend schools with 100% black enrollments,” and also allowing the schools with black populations to sit in poorer conditions than the white schools.
This is what Bolivar County looked like the year desegregation was mandated. Not much seems to have changed.
District Four continued to stall the process in 1995 when it asked the courts for permission to implement a magnet program to aid integration. That plan failed, which lead to a judge calling out the longtime defendant in 2011 for a “lack [of] will to meaningfully integrate its schools,” and a motion was filed by the United States to “(1) find the defendants in violation of federal laws and the orders of this Court and (2) ‘order Cleveland to devise and implement a desegregation plan that will immediately dismantle its one-race schools and put the District on a path to unitary status.’”
Over the past five years there have been numerous appeals, negotiations, proposals, motions and even a judge having to recuse himself from the proceedings. Because the people making decisions in Bolivar County are incredibly unimpressive, they’ve expressed concerns that desegregation would lead to “white flight.” Fortunately the court decision basically told them to shut that noise down, saying, “[white flight] cannot be accepted as a reason for achieving less than complete uprooting of the dual public school system.”
District Four submitted two integration plans of its own to the court, but both were deemed unconstitutional and insufficient to solve the 62-year long problem, which lead the court to devise and order the plan that will take effect immediately with the 2016-2017 academic year and result in teachers and students being forcibly reassigned to different schools. While this will surely be a shock to the system of many students who’ve settled into specific routines and friend groups in their current locations, the Conclusion of the ruling makes clear it is the only option thanks to the historically obstinate attitude of the District Four school board.
“Nearly fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court announced that ‘[t]he haltingly slow days of all deliberate speed have given way to the mandated duty to immediately desegregate.’… In the decades since this pronouncement, the District has failed to meet this obligation as it concerns the high schools and middle schools in Cleveland, Mississippi. This failure, whether born of good faith, bad faith, or some combination of the two, has placed Cleveland in the unenviable position of operating under a desegregation order long after schools in bastions of segregation like Boston, Jackson, and Mobile have been declared unitary. More important, and of far greater harm, 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.”
Welcome to 2016, Cleveland, Mississippi. We’ve been waiting for you.