Jim Crow Is Still Alive and Well in Natchez, Blacks Allege
In Natchez, Miss., which has styled itself a "museum of the antebellum South,'' white residents this month are donning period costumes to welcome scores of visitors--many arriving on paddleboats that ply the Mississippi River--for tours of the city's renowned mansions.
Black residents, meanwhile, are confronting the visitors with a different message about the legacy of the Old South. Picketers stationed at strategic tour stops inform visitors that the local school system is nearly as segregated as it was in the days of state-mandated separation of the races.
Although tourism for the city's month-long "Pilgrimage'' celebration has apparently not been affected by the demonstrations, there are signs that a related boycott of white-owned businesses is beginning to pay dividends for the protesters:
- Claude Porter, the school system's superintendent for 11 years,
abruptly announced this month that he would retire at the end of the
school year. Mr. Porter's resignation was one of the protesters'
major demands, but the superintendent denies that the boycott was a
factor in his decision.
- The U.S. Justice Department, which first sued the district in
1965 in an effort to dismantle its racially segregated school system,
has filed a motion in federal court charging that district officials
have "effectively re-created a dual school system.'' The motion seeks
additional court-ordered relief to remedy what the department's
lawyers claim are wide-ranging constitutional violations.
- Almost simultaneously, a group of black parents filed a motion to intervene in the case, charging that the Justice Department had acted "irresponsibly'' by allowing the lawsuit to languish in the courts for more than a decade despite evidence that school officials were not complying with a 1970 court order.
An Escalating Dispute
The climate of protest developed last fall with accusations that a new principal had "harrassed and intimidated'' a 10-year-old black child, according to Barney Schoby, a state legislator who represents Natchez.
Mr. Schoby and other local black elected officials demanded the removal of the principal, but the superintendent refused to accede to their request.
The school board, in turn, unanimously rejected the group's next demand for the ouster of Mr. Porter, who has worked in the school system for 35 years.
The group now demands that the entire school board resign, and that various steps be taken to ensure that the school system cannot continue to discriminate against black students or staff members.
That discrimination manifests itself in the overrepresentation of whites among both teachers and administrators, Mr. Schoby said, but it also extends to "separate proms at South Natchez High School, one for blacks, one for whites, and separate black baccalaureates.''
The black protesters have underscored their demands with a boycott of the city's businesses that began Dec. 10, shortly before the peak Christmas shopping season.
While local business leaders acknowledge that the boycott has hurt their businesses, they have ceased trying to mediate the dispute.
The black leaders' current demands are "unreasonable and inconsistent,'' said John Seymour, executive vice-president of the Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce.
"In the beginning, we felt there were some legitimate problems,'' he said. "We've gone overboard to meet their requests.''
The protest, he said, has become "a total show of force, a political thing, it's not about the schools any longer.''
Mr. Porter, the superintendent, echoed this comment in an interview last week. "There is no problem with our public schools,'' he said. "The boycott is just a political move.''
Documents filed in federal court by the Justice Department paint a different picture.
They charge that the district has "failed fully and faithfully to implement a final desegregation plan'' and has taken steps "believed by the United States to be intentionally segregative.''
Under the present desegregation plan, the lawyers charge, "approximately 68 percent of the black students who first enroll in the Natchez schools at the elementary level receive a segregated education and will continue to do so as long as they remain in the Natchez public schools.''
During the 1984-85 school year, department records show, six of the district's 13 schools were 100 percent black, while three were more than 80 percent white. Approximately 70 percent of the district's 6,500 students are black.
District officials have made substantial alterations to the desegregation plan without seeking court approval, according to the department's documents, and have failed to file the required status reports with the department and the court.
Debra Burstion-Wade, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said the department's request for "supplemental relief'' "is a fairly common procedure.''
Other experts, however, said that such moves have been rare during the Reagan Administration, which prefers to negotiate settlements to disputes outside of the courtroom.
Black Families Intervene
The department's motion in the long-dormant lawsuit came several months after three black families had already approached a private lawyer to represent their interests in the case.
Although the department had filed a motion for supplemental relief in 1977, it had never been ruled on, and the district continues to operate under a desegregation plan that was last amended in 1970.
In a motion requesting permission to intervene in the case, which has been joined by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., the lawyer for the three black families charged that the Justice Department "has acted irresponsibly in this case.''
"Long before the completion of the desegregation process, the United States became a virtual non-party in the case, rarely to be seen or heard from again,'' the motion states.
"We've made a number of complaints to the department,'' said Mr. Schoby. "We just have never have gotten any relief.''
"The Justice Department wasn't vigilant in going back to court,'' said Michael Adelman, the lawyer for the black families.
He attributed much of the original desegregation plan's failure to amendments to the plan that were approved by the court in 1970. "It needed to be nipped in the bud when you could see the pattern that was developing.''
In 1969, at the time the amendments were proposed, neither of the district's two high schools were more than 80 percent black, but the following year one was 99.9 percent black and the other was 39.1 percent black, according to Justice Department documents.
Department officials were not available last week either to confirm whether additional complaints had been filed in the intervening years or to explain the department's delay in seeking further relief in the case.
Recent events, including a march by "white supremacists'' scheduled for last Saturday, "will add a little more fuel to the fire,'' said Mr. Schoby.
"We're using the court system as a way of getting where we want,'' he added, "but it took us 14 years of constant fighting to get where we are now.''