BRIDGING THE GAP: Peaceful integration can provide lessons for today

By Chris Kieffer | NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The integration of the Tupelo Public School District in 1970 was one of the city’s finest hours.
Many other communities saw large-scale resistance and, in some cases, violence. They watched their public school systems crumble as white residents left in large numbers for newly-formed, segregated private schools.
That didn’t happen in Tupelo, where black and white residents met and discussed integration before it occurred. Prominent white residents pledged to keep their children enrolled in the public schools and to support the system.
Both black and white residents remember it as a peaceful time.
“Tupelo stepped ahead in economic development by the way we handled integration of public schools,” said Jack Reed Sr., a longtime business owner, education advocate and former gubernatorial candidate. “That was one of our proudest hours. It is time for us to have another proud hour and keep our commitment to public education.”
Tupelo finds itself facing another challenge involving schools and race as the district looks at a glaring achievement gap between black and white students. At the same time, a school system that was 80 percent white in 1970 now is 50 percent black and 44 percent white and finds itself needing to make changes to adjust to the demographic shift.
As the district meets these challenges, it can do well to remember the lessons of its peaceful integration, those who were involved say.
“We are facing a similar situation as we were in 1970,” said the Rev. Charles Penson, another longtime community leader. “Our community is at a crossroads and needs to make a determination whether we will support public education.”
The Rev. Robert Jamison was teaching at George Washington Carver High School, then the city’s black high school, at the time of integration. He said a committee was formed with black and white residents and with teachers and community members. That committee would meet for hours at a time, he said, talking about problems other Southern cities were having with integration and ways for Tupelo to avoid them.
“Tupelo school integration was much different than any place in Mississippi,” said Jamison, who later became head of the Lee County NAACP. “It was not as violent and there were not as many protests. It was really smooth. … We said, ‘Let’s get together and make this work.’”
Nathaniel Stone was principal at Green Street Elementary School, the city’s black elementary school, when integration occurred. Stone said local leadership was key to the smooth process.
Stone also recalls meetings with the school’s newly-integrated faculty in which everyone learned how to work together.
“As far as school integration, the spirit was fantastic,” Stone said. “Parents were right behind the school and supported us in everything we did.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com