JACKSON, Miss. — A public school district in Mississippi and the federal government are divided over whether the schools are complying with a desegregation order that dates back to the civil rights era.
The Justice Department has asked a judge to order the Cleveland Public School District “to devise and implement a desegregation plan that will immediately dismantle its one-race schools,” but an attorney for the district said it has been following the latest order and sends the federal government updates on its integration attempts.
“Of our 10 schools, we have six that have a significant integrated population,” said attorney Jamie Jacks said. “The district was hopeful they (the Justice Department) would see not only that we are a truly integrated system within the Mississippi Delta, but we’re a good school district. Our kids do well and get a great education.”
Before the 1969 order, schools on the west side of the railroad tracks that run through Cleveland were by law segregated white schools. More than 40 years later, students and faculty at those schools are still disproportionately white, the Justice Department said.
Similarly, the department said, schools on the east side of the railroad tracks — originally black schools — have never been integrated. In most cases, the schools on the opposite sides of the tracks are less than three miles apart.
The district is located about 20 miles from the Arkansas border in Bolivar County, which has a black population of 65.6 percent.
Jacks said the district, which has a student population of 3,491 and is 68 percent black and 29 percent white, began a transfer program shortly after the 1969 desegregation order to move minority students to majority schools.
“Cleveland High School, which is the on the west side is 47 percent African-American; 50 percent white; 2 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian,” Jacks said. “Cleveland High used to be 100 percent white.”
Another school, Bell Academy, has an 80 percent black population, but it used to be 97 percent, she said.
Ellis Turnage, an attorney who represents parents of some of the students involved in the case, said the Cleveland High numbers illustrate the problem.
“As long as you stay with this old historical remedy that hasn’t worked, you’re going to end up with the same results,” he said. “You need to go to one high school, one junior high … that’s the way you achieve integration.”
According to the Justice Department, attempts to work with the school district were unsuccessful.
“It is intolerable for school districts to continue operating schools that retain their racial identity from the Jim Crow era,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the Justice Department. “If school districts are not willing to work collaboratively to eradicate the vestiges of de jure segregated schools, we will ask the courts to take the steps necessary to ensure that students of all racial backgrounds have the opportunity to attend diverse, inclusive schools.”
Enforcing court-ordered desegregation of school districts is one of the division’s top priorities.
For example, on March 23, federal court in Mississippi modified the 1969 desegregation order governing the operations of the school district in Leake County, Miss. After a comprehensive review, the department determined that the school district continued to operate four essentially single-race schools.
After taking account of a capacity study and the input of more than 800 students, parents and concerned citizens who attended a community meeting, the Justice Department and district jointly requested that two schools close. They also asked that students and faculty be reassigned, and for improvements to the quality of education and extracurricular activities at the remaining schools. A judge granted the requests.