School Desegregation in Mississippi
In 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the gap between white and black education created by fifty years of support for white (only) education was exceedingly wide. While the Brown decision meant that the dual school system in Mississippi was now illegal, white Mississippians made clear that no attempts to abandon the dual school system would be tolerated. When groups of black Mississippians in Natchez, Vicksburg, Yazoo City, Clarksdale, and Jackson pressed for adherence to the decision in 1955, they were stopped swiftly, decisively, and repeatedly. And for a decade after Brown, white Mississippians resorted to private and state-sanctioned economic and, sometimes, physical intimidation to block black attempts to desegregate Mississippi schools. While squashing any efforts by black Mississippians to assert their new legal rights, the state of Mississippi also proposed, as an alternative to desegregated schools, a massive equalization program to improve black schools.
Lawsuits by black parents in Biloxi, Jackson, and Leake County, who were supported in their efforts by the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, finally led to the first court-ordered school desegregation in the state in the fall of 1964. In the following year, because of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, most Mississippi school districts reluctantly adopted freedom-of-choice desegregation plans, which essentially provided that any student could choose to go to any school in a district. Freedom-of-choice desegregation, however, only offered five years of token desegregation and the preservation of largely segregated schools. The problem was that in the 1960s, most black Mississippians really did not have freedom of choice. Between 1964 and 1969, black parents who chose white schools for their children were subjected to numerous forms of intimidation: some were pressured or fired by their employers; some lost their housing; some lost their credit at the local bank; and others received threatening phone calls, had crosses burned on their lawns, or were victims of physical intimidation. In 1968, largely because of the continuing resistance of white Southerners to school desegregation, the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. County School Board that freedom of choice was ineffective and no longer an acceptable method of desegregation. In October 1969, the Supreme Court essentially said enough is enough, and in a landmark decision involving thirty Mississippi school districts, Alexander v. Holmes, the court ordered the immediate termination of dual school systems and the establishment of unitary ones. Thus, many Mississippi school districts had to begin the complete integration of their school systems in mid-year, during January and February of 1970.
-- contributed by Charles Bolton
State Sovereignty Commission
White Citizens Council