In the summer of 1965, dozens of children sued the Bolivar County, Mississippi Board of Education “on their own behalf and on behalf of all other Negro children and parents.” They sought an end to racially segregated schools. But more than half a century later, the county continues to operate at least two schools that are almost entirely black.
On Friday, just days before the 62nd birthday of Brown v. Board of Education, a federal court ordered the district to end this practice.
When the court’s order takes full effect — assuming that it is not reversed on appeal — it will be the first time in the history of Brown that schools in Bolivar County comply with the Constitution. The case, Cowan v. Bolivar County Board of Education, is a monument to the slow and difficult process that often faces school districts with a legacy of discrimination.
Though Judge Debra Brown’s decision comes over half a century after this case was originally filed, the courts did not ignore the case in the proceeding decades. A 1969 court order divided the school district up into attendance zones in order to “disestablish all school segregation and to eliminate the effects of the dual school system.” By the 1980s, however, according to a complaint filed by the Justice Department, various school district policies had hampered integration. The district allegedly “instituted informally a dual residence policy and practice allowing students to attend schools in zones outside of their residence if the student establishes a second residence during the week,” for example. And it built “three new schools in areas such that black students continue to attend schools with 100% black enrollments.”
In 1989, the district agreed to a list of binding reforms, including a “majority-to-minority transfer policy” that allowed students to transfer to schools where they are in a racial minority, modified attendance zones, and a magnet program to attract white students to an historically black school.
Every single student enrolled at the high school on the east side of the tracks was black.
Twenty-seven years later, however, it’s now clear that these (and subsequent) reforms brought about due to this litigation have not achieved an integrated school district. That’s true in no small part because the schools operate against the backdrop of profound housing segregation. The heart of the county is the town of Cleveland, a town of about 12,000 people built entirely around the railroad system — Cleveland marks more or less the halfway point between New Orleans and Memphis. Railroad tracks still separate the east side of the town from the west, and the schools east of these tracks are almost entirely black. West side schools are more racially integrated.
One thing that is clear after reading Judge Brown’s opinion is that programs which rely primarily on giving students the opportunity to transfer to another school have not achieved integration — even when the black school is superior to the school preferred by white families. Though her opinion explains that the district’s integrated middle school is superior to the almost entirely black middle school, the black high school offers several programs that the integrated high school does not, including an International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme and exclusive Advanced Placement offerings. Additionally, the black high school is rated as a “B” school, according to Brown’s opinion, while the integrated school is rated as a “C” school.
Nevertheless, in May of 2015 every single student enrolled at the high school on the east side of the tracks was black. Although some white students travel to the black high school for part of the day to attend the school’s advanced courses, none of them appear to have been inspired to transfer completely.
The punchline of Judge Brown’s opinion is that Bolivar County must consolidate its east side and west side middle and high schools into two grand schools that serve both black and white students. “Consolidation represents the only constitutional avenue presented and available to this Court,” the judge concludes. The court has spent a half-century trying lesser measures, and those measures haven’t worked.
So score a victory — albeit a belated one — for the forces of desegregation. Nevertheless, it is likely that this case would have ended very differently if the district’s slow progress had not caused them to remain under a court order since the 1960s.
Since the Nixon administration, when President Nixon made four appointments to the Supreme Court, the justices have often been tepid, at best, towards public school integration. “Federal supervision of local school systems was intended as a temporary measure to remedy past discrimination,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist explained in a 1991 decision. Accordingly, the Court established that integration orders should be lifted after a period of compliance, and control should return to local authorities. After that happens, those authorities may implement policies that increase racial segregation, so long as those policies are not implemented for the purpose of fostering segregation.
In the wake of this and similar decisions, the percentage of black students attending majority white schools has been in free-fall:
Cowan, in other words, is a victory for integration in one school district, but it is also an anomaly in a legal regime that is more concerned with local control than it is with preventing unconstitutional discrimination.