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Date    11.21.05
Contact   David Tisdale 601.266.4499


HATTIESBURG -- The fight to end Mississippi’s school segregation policy is chronicled by historian and Southern Miss alumnus Dr. Chuck Bolton in his latest book The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870-1980.

Bolton’s work details the persistent efforts of Mississippi’s ruling elite to maintain a dual, “separate but equal” school system, one for whites and one for blacks, and the ensuing legal battle to bring about a unified education system.

“I’ve always been interested in school desegregation,” said Bolton, a former Southern Miss history professor who was at the Hattiesburg Public Library recently to sign copies of his book. “There’s been some great books about the civil rights movement, but they didn’t fully address school desegregation. I felt it was a topic that needed to be pursued.”

Tragically, Bolton said, this system as well as efforts to resist desegregation orders from the federal government, per the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, wasted untold amounts of funding that could have been used for a more efficient, unified school system.

Ironically, it was a case involving Mississippi plaintiffs in the case Alexander v. Holmes in 1969 that finally put the teeth in the Brown case. The Brown case directed that school desegregation take place with all due speed, giving those opposing desegregation altogether an opening to prolong it indefinitely. Alexander v. Holmes, in effect, ordered that desegregation take place immediately.

“That meant Mississippi schools had to be desegregated in January of 1970,” Bolton said.

As a rule, black schools and their students and faculty were inadequately funded and served by the state. “For many black Mississippians, integration was not the ultimate goal,” Bolton said. “The goal was to get a better education for their children, and the way to do that was to force the two systems to become one.”

Although desegregation was achieved in 1970, in most cases it came with white terms, as many black teachers and school principals found themselves out of jobs when white staff were kept on to run the newly integrated schools. In addition, many African-Americans lost a rallying point and source of pride – their high school – since in most cases the white high school was ultimately chosen as the facility where all students would attend.

Approaches to handling the imminent desegregation of public schools varied across the state. In the Mississippi Delta, most whites completely abandoned the public school system as desegregation became a reality and created private academies for the education of their children. “Basically they (Delta counties) long had a private (segregated) system before, but it was paid for by the state,” Bolton said of the separate but equal system.

In Hattiesburg, however, Bolton said the situation was unique in comparison to the rest of the state, as blacks were brought into a community decision-making process over how best to desegregate the schools. “It (Hattiesburg approach) brought in everyone, which would have been the best way for the rest of the state to approach the issue, and desegregation could have been achieved much sooner and with less strife.”

John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, said Bolton’s book gives a comprehensive look at educational developments in the state and deals with the racial implications of public education. “He (Bolton) is perceptive and evenhanded in his judgments, particularly with the controversial questions surrounding the racial dimensions of education today.”

Bolton, a Picayune native, earned his undergraduate degree in history from the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s and doctorate in history from Duke University. He is a former chair of the Southern Miss History Department and former director of the university’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage. He now serves as chair of the history department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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Last updated: 12/22/05

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