After a five-decade legal battle, a federal court has ordered Mississippi's Cleveland School District to desegregate in observance of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown v Board of Education, which held that separate schools for black and white students are unconstitutional.
US District Judge Debra M. Brown wrote in her 96-page opinion filed on Friday that the school district had "failed" to meet the mandatory obligation to desegregate: "This failure, whether born of good faith, bad faith, or some combination of the two, has placed Cleveland in the unenviable position of operating under a desegregation order long after schools in bastions of segregation... have been declared unitary."
"More important, and of far greater harm, the delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally guaranteed right of an integrated education." she went on. "Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the district to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden."
There are two high schools in the outlying Mississippi-Delta city of Cleveland: the mostly black East Side High School and the historically white Cleveland High School. The two main middle schools, DM Smith Middle School and Margaret Green Junior High, are also divided racially. According to court documents, Cleveland School District currently enrolls about 3,799 students from pre-K through to grade 12. About 66 percent of them are black, 30 percent are white, and four percent are Asian or Hispanic.
Under the DOJ's plan for integration, which was developed with the help of experts in school desegregation and approved by the court, the district's high schools and middle schools will be consolidated.
Brown gave the school district 21 days from the date of her opinion to submit a timeline for its immediate implementation of the integration plan.
'This decision serves as a reminder to districts that delaying desegregation obligations is both unacceptable and unconstitutional.'
The long fight for desegregation in Cleveland shows how the issues of Brown v Board of Education, which was decided 62 years ago today, continue to resonate. Nearly 180 school districts across the country are currently embroiled in desegregation cases, 44 of them in Mississippi. What sets Cleveland apart, however, is that it never desegregated to begin with.
A report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Tuesday found that the numbers of black and Latino students attending high-poverty and racially isolated schools increased by 11 percent between 2001 and 2014.
"When it comes to racial equity in public education, we are fundamentally headed in the wrong direction," Jitu Brown, national director of the Advancement Project and Journey for Justice, a civil rights group, said in a statement in response to the report. "If we fail to turn the tide on this disturbing trend, our Black and Brown students will continue to be subjected to Jim Crow-like public education where they are expected to perform at high levels but with a fraction of the resources."
What the GAO report found was that segregation is perhaps much more systemic than people realize – and stretches beyond extreme cases like in Cleveland, Mississippi.
"This research reflects a sad reality," said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project. "The color of your skin is more likely to determine whether you have access to a high-quality, well-resourced and diverse public school."
"Increasingly separate and unequal schools should be an alarm to everyone," she added. "It is a moral imperative that we provide all students with a quality education, regardless of their race or socio-economic status. Remaining complacent in the face of increasing racial disparities in education conveys that we are content with inequality."
In 1965, a group of black parents sued the Cleveland School District over its efforts to maintain segregation. Four years later, in 1969, a court agreed with the parents and ordered Cleveland to stop racially discriminating against school students and end its "dual school system." For the first time ever, black students were allowed to enroll in Cleveland High.
But that was far from the end of things. A thousand white people from Cleveland showed up to protest, and local officials continued to fight the court's order.
"The wheels of justice have been said to turn slowly," Sharon Lerner wrote in the Atlantic last year. "And few things move quickly here in Cleveland, Mississippi, a town of 12,000 people with no movie theater and a quaint commercial district that's shuttered on Sunday."
"This decision serves as a reminder to districts that delaying desegregation obligations is both unacceptable and unconstitutional," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement on Monday. "This victory creates new opportunities for the children of Cleveland to learn, play and thrive together. The court's ruling will result in the immediate and effective desegregation of the district's middle school and high school program for the first time in the district's more than century-long history."
The city is literally divided by railroad tracks, with mostly white families living on the west side and black families living on the east side. According to court documents, the division of those tracks is a powerful signifier that the segregated school system has only reinforced.
"We actually want to be able to find some way to get involved in Cleveland School District instead of being outcast because we are the track schools, a school on this side of the track and a school on that side of the track," testified a resident named Keith White. "How modern is that in our society?"
Leroy Byars, a former football coach from East Side High School, testified how black students at the school felt like "they were inferior."
In its plans for consolidation, the DOJ has also stressed the importance of "rebranding" the schools to "eradicate the stigma that parents and community members described."
"It signals to the community that the District is not simply folding one school into another, retaining the identity of the remaining school and erasing the identity of the non-remaining schools," the DOJ said. "Part of the 'rebranding' process means that the new schools will have new names and new mascots, but also 'allows room to memorialize the history, traditions and legacies' associated with each of the schools."
The district's primary objection to the DOJ's integration plan was that consolidation of the middle and high schools could trigger a "white flight" of families from the District, with the loss of enrollment translating into an overall loss in funding. Court documents noted that this argument relied "almost exclusively" on the research of one woman, Dr. Christine Rossell, "to justify unfounded claims of future white flight."
Rossell's testimony was based on parental attitudes on school choices from the late 1960s and 1980s, but she "admitted that she does not know parents' current attitudes or feelings with regards to school choice."
District officials had proposed two alternatives to consolidating the schools. The first involved offering parents and students greater academic options in enrolling at different schools, while the second would have established a magnet school for science, math, and the arts. An earlier ruling had ordered a "freedom of choice" plan, which was implemented in the 2013-2014 school year, but court documents noted that it has not desegregated the schools "nor does it offer any promise of desegregation in the future."
The United States also alleged in documents that Cleveland reinforced the racial identity of its schools through the race-based assignment of faculty and staff to district schools.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen