Law & Courts

In a Small Mississippi City, a Half-Century of Legal Battles

By Mark Walsh — May 13, 2014 4 min read
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Cleveland, Miss., the site of a still-active school desegregation case nearly half a century old, is roughly midway between Memphis and New Orleans. It thus became a railroad stop between the two points in 1886.

Named for the president of that time, Grover Cleveland, the town has long been divided by the north-south tracks: The east side was largely black, and the west was mostly white. Even though the Illinois Central Railroad pulled up stakes years ago, the boundary endures as a dividing line for attendance zones in the school district.

The desegregation battle in the city of 12,000 is emblematic of the impact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had on the nation’s efforts to end racially separate schools. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, black parents in Cleveland didn’t sue for desegregation until 1965, when the new civil rights law was prodding districts, courts, and the federal government into more action.

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Federal Enforcement Is Key to Brown Legacy

Today, some 49 years after the suit was filed, the 3,600-student Cleveland school district appears far from the end of federal court supervision.

In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, unanimously ordered a federal district judge in Mississippi to do more to justify adopting a “freedom of choice” plan to address two schools on the east side of the tracks that have always remained virtually all-black.

“A freedom-of-choice plan ... has historically proven to be an ineffective desegregation tool,” the appeals court said in Cowan v. Cleveland School District.

Justice Department Intervenes

In 1969, a federal judge rejected a freedom-of-choice plan for the Cleveland schools. At that time, enrollment in the district was 56 percent black, 43 percent white, and 1 percent “other races.” The court issued a desegregation order with a detailed plan dealing with student assignments, faculty and staff desegregation, transportation, and other factors.

Brown at 60: New Diversity, Familiar Disparities

Even with ground-shifting demographic changes, many public schools continue to be highly segregated 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the principle of “separate but equal” education, but those shifts have also created opportunities to approach diversifying schools and classrooms in new ways.

This special series includes reporting on the state of school integration today, video profiles, national data on school desegregation, a timeline of landmark desegregation cases, Commentaries on integration, and more.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice, which had intervened in the case in 1985, filed a motion arguing that the district was not complying with its desegregation orders. The department said that schools on the east side of the tracks had remained virtually all African-American, while schools on the west side had a white population that was 20 percent greater than that of the district as a whole.

“For decades, Cleveland has resisted implementing the measures required to dismantle de jure segregated schools,” the Justice Department said in a court filing.

By 2011, district-wide enrollment was 66.4 percent black, 30.2 percent white, and 3.4 percent other, the district said in court papers.

“Not every desegregation tool tried by the district has succeeded,” lawyers for the district argued in the 2011 brief. “But the Constitution does not require success for every desegregation mechanism attempted.”

In 2012, after touring Cleveland schools, Senior U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson of Oxford, Miss., found that the district had complied with desegregation orders with respect to its elementary schools, but he ordered a plan to address the virtually all-black East Side High School and D.M. Smith Middle School.

New Plan Under Scrutiny

The district responded with a plan to create new magnet school programs at those schools. The district’s desegregation expert, Christine H. Rosell, a Boston University political science professor, recommended, among other steps, that East Side High School start a science, technology, and mathematics magnet program.

“My hope ... is that the growth in white enrollment will come from the whites that are currently attending private schools in the Cleveland school district or nearby counties,” Ms. Rosell said in a 2012 report.

The Justice Department argued that new magnet programs would not attract white students in significant numbers. It suggested consolidating the district’s two high schools and two middle schools into one of each for the entire district.

The Rev. Edward Duvall, a Baptist minister in Cleveland and a graduate of East Side High, testified in favor of consolidation. New magnet programs would not work to attract white students, he argued.

“Kids on the west side of town have no desire to cross those railroad tracks,” Mr. Duvall said, according to court papers.

Judge Davidson surprised both sides last year by ordering a third option: the new freedom-of-choice plan, which would eliminate boundary lines and let middle and high school students attend either of the respective schools.

The school district embraced the judge’s idea, but the Justice Department appealed to the 5th Circuit Court. On April 1, the appellate court ordered Judge Davidson to do more to explain why he thought such a plan would work.

The long-running case is now pending back in federal district court.

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as In a Small Mississippi City, a Half-Century of Legal Battles

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