The 1957 Murrah High School yearbook is filled with happy white faces, and names like Hederman, Copeland and Mize. One photo shows the yearbook staffers cutting up and having a good time; one young man's grinning face is painted black. The 1958 yearbook shows another boy in blackface, that year clearly ridiculing Little Richard. That was four years after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared school segregation illegal. But there were still no black children in Murrah High School; they would not cross the school's threshold for years to come.
Robert Gibbs, a Hinds County circuit judge from 1991 to 1998, was one of the first black students to integrate Jackson Public Schools, transferring from Brinkley High School to Murrah in late 1969. "We went from our comfort zone to not knowing what was going to happen next," said Gibbs, who was in the 11th grade when the schools integrated. "One of the biggest obstacles to deal with at Murrah was the cultural difference. I remember in our band at Brinkley we played soulful, upbeat songs like James Brown and The Temptations, but at Murrah they were playing 'The Good Ship Lollipop.'"
Legal segregation finally ended in 1969 after the case of Derek Jerome Singleton vs. the Jackson Public School District. Still, the system for integrating Jackson Public Schools was designed for black students to desegregate white schools, throwing them into foreign and strange territory with no allies. And many families weren't waiting around to find out how well their children could adjust to integrated schools.
When the schools re-opened Feb. 1, 1970, as "integrated" institutions, Jackson Public Schools had lost 5,000 students since the last semester. "The 'White Flight' had begun!" stated the book, "A History of the Public Schools in Jackson, Mississippi, 1832-1972." "Parents could not accept the uncertainty obvious in this plan. The stability of the neighborhood school was lost."
"White flight" is the name given to the movement of white students who were pulled out of the public school systems seemingly over night; the popularity of private schools in Mississippi—or "seg academies" as they were often called—shot up right away. "Private academies sprang up like mushrooms in hot weather," the book states.
Laurie Cheatham, a Jackson State student and author of the thesis "Mississippi's Enduring Dual School System," reports that 70,000 people had abandoned the public school system in Mississippi by 1973. During this time many whites left Jackson and moved to Madison, Clinton and Pearl as well as Rankin County, taking their tax dollars with them in their search for schools where their children wouldn't have to mix with many blacks.
This migration still affects Jackson Public Schools today. JPS Deputy Superintendent of Schools Ron Sellers said only about 15 of the 58 schools can be considered diversified. And the district is now about 95 percent African American. "Over the years," Sellers said, "schools have become desegregated certainly not by law, but by the nature of where people choose to live." Now the surrounding school districts of Rankin County, Pearl, and Clinton are more diversified than Jackson, having more of a mixed population of different races.
Gibbs, an attorney at Brunini Grantham Grower and Hewes in Jackson, says that his Murrah experience was good for him. "It makes you stronger to have to adapt to different groups of people. The teachers at Murrah pushed us (the black students) indirectly because they did not think we could learn—so we worked that much harder to prove that we were smart. He also remembers the solidarity of the black students. "One day we even walked out of school and said we would not return until changes were made."