Jess Bravin has a must-read piece about the town of Cleveland, Mississppi, where most of the African-American children still attend an all-black public high school , East Side High School, on one side of the town’s old railroad tracks. On the other side sits one of the few public high schools in the Mississippi Delta where significant numbers of black students and white students sit in class together — but at a price. The white children dominate school activities at Cleveland High, and much of the white minority in the town is fighting hard to keep it that way. As Cleveland High’s homecoming queen expresses the white community’s anxieties, “[w]hen you have all the black kids come in, we’re going to have a majority black football team, our whole basketball team is going to be black, I mean, everything — our homecoming court, our beauty review, our student council, all of our activities.”
The most gut-wrenching aspect of the story isn’t the white community’s opposition to full integration, however, it is the fact that many African-Americans within Cleveland oppose a Justice Department lawsuit seeking to desegregate both of the town’s high schools — including one of Cleveland’s highest ranking black officials:
Local officials said a merger would throw white students into the minority and chase away white families.
In nearby communities that complied with court-ordered integration, “the high school now is damn near all black,” said Cleveland’s school board president, Maurice Lucas, who is black. “There ain’t enough white folks to go around.” . . .
Emily Jones, the archivist at Cleveland’s Delta State University, is firmly opposed. “We like our traditions, to sit down in our own culture,” said Ms. Jones, 36, who is white.
If the government prevails, Ms. Jones said, Cleveland could become like nearby Greenville, where white enrollment at public schools is 3%. “My sister and her husband moved to Cleveland from Greenville because of the schools,” she said. “They would move again if the schools changed.”
Lucas’s concerns are not idle fears. When I was a teacher in the Mississippi Delta, I taught in a de facto segregated public middle school where well over 90 percent of the students were black. Although the town had a substantial white minority, nearly all the white children attended a nearby private academy, and this is a common story in many Delta towns.
The most hopeful part of Bravin’s piece comes close to the end, when he describes a Louisiana community that broke out of this trap. The white academy system was one of the techniques pioneered by segregationist Sen. Harry Byrd’s “massive resistance” campaign against public school integration. Most of the academies that grew up in the wake of white opposition to integration were founded forty decades or more ago. So the children who attend them today attend an institution that is firmly established within their towns and is often the same school their parents attended.
Last May, however, Lincoln Parrish, Louisiana agreed to merge its segregated school system into an integrated student body in response to a Justice Department lawsuit, and this agreement so far appears successful. As Bravin explains, “[b]lack enrollment at schools in the district — which had ranged from 26% to 92% — is now between 52% and 60%.” This is only one example, and there is still time for a white academy system to form in Lincoln Parrish, but it is also a hopeful sign that integration can succeed in towns that do not already have an alternative school system where white families can flee.