Returning home to Tupelo from a recent business trip to south Mississippi, I decided to take a detour off the interstate into Meridian, where I graduated from high school in 1972, just to get a peek at the old familiar sites.
I drove down Poplar Springs Drive and turned up a street that runs alongside Meridian High School and offers an elevated end-zone view of the field at Ray Stadium, where the MHS Wildcats play. It was late in the day, and the football team was on the field in a spring practice session, doing calisthenics.
All the athletes were black. So, too, are most of the rest of the students at Meridian High School.
Meaningful public school integration, which was successfully achieved on a massive scale in Meridian when I was in high school, could not be sustained over the long haul. It’s sad that a community that poured so much effort into making integration work – and took great pride in the accomplishment when it did – has watched as its schools slowly, steadily resegregated.
Some whites went to the private school in town, which was created in the 1960s to avoid integration and was small at first, but later grew to be the school of choice for whites who could afford it. Many others simply moved out of the city into the county, where certain public school areas remain heavily white. The same story is evident all over Mississippi, and the trend – while not so far along – has been developing in Tupelo and Lee County for the better part of two decades.
Saturday was the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared racially dual school systems unconstitutional. For 15 years, Mississippi’s political leadership recklessly defied that decision, which the court had ordered implemented with “all deliberate speed.” In 1969, “massive resistance” ran out of gas and a new round of Supreme Court decisions forced Mississippi to get the job done.
Predictions of violence and bloodshed came from many quarters. In most places, it didn’t happen. Not that there weren’t problems, and in some towns there was wholesale defection of whites from public schools virtually overnight. But cities like Meridian, Greenville and Hattiesburg – not to mention Tupelo – blended black and white school systems peacefully into one unified and thoroughly integrated system. With the exception of Tupelo, all of those systems, and others like them around the state, have lost most of their white students.
School integration nationwide is in retreat. It peaked in the late 1980s, and ever since the percentage of black students attending majority white schools has been in decline. That’s certainly the case in Mississippi.
The pattern in our state has generally been this: As city neighborhoods age and new, affordable housing becomes scarcer within city limits, middle-class and affluent residents – overwhelmingly white – move outside the city limits and settle in county school districts. As the demographic changes continue, whites become increasingly uncomfortable with the racial composition of city school systems and the outmigration accelerates. Sometimes, as in Lee County, the county systems have schools within the same district that are overwhelmingly of one race or the other.
Nothing suggests that majority black or all-black schools are automatically inferior. That’s one African-American critique of the Brown decision – that it implied blacks had to go to school with whites to get a quality education.
But what happens today is different only in degree with what happened when there were racially dual school systems, and the black schools were chronically underfunded and made do with second-rate facilities and outdated books. As school systems resegregate today, the heavily black systems get less money, less community support and their academic performance declines. Their communities, in turn, face new social and economic struggles.
The bottom line is this: Communities where most whites and blacks and other minorities are in the public schools together are healthier communities and their kids are getting a better education. That’s always been a distinction in Tupelo, but it won’t be sustained without overt recognition and understanding of that reality, and a persistent response to it.
Sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, that’s the lesson.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.