William J. “Bill” Simmons, who ran the racist Citizens’ Council for years in Jackson, worked with scientific racists nationally to keep schools segregated and black schools underfunded. He spread fake “science” that black children were inferior to white kids to keep segregation in place. Photo courtesy Associated Press
JACKSON It turns out that young Robert Gibbs, a junior at Murrah in 1970, wasn't intellectually inferior after all, although much of white Jackson believed he must be.
After decades of diving into the roots of white beliefs about black children and families, I thought nothing could surprise me. Then I edited Arielle Dreher's months-long investigation into the integration and re-segregation of Jackson's public schools and saw the words a federal judge wrote about our children of color.
"Defendants first presented evidence pertaining to the scholastic achievement and mental ability (I.Q.) of the members of the white and Negro races, as reflected by the records maintained by the Jackson Municipal Separate School District, and pertaining to such pupils within such District. These records disclose that there is a wide discrepancy between the scholastic achievement and the mental ability, as shown by recognized tests used nationally," U.S. District Judge Sidney Mize, a Scott County native, wrote in his opinion in Evers v. Jackson Municipal Separate School District.
Bam, there it is. I've long known that junk science about the inferiority of black people, which is called "scientific racism," was key to convincing white folks in Mississippi and beyond to resist integrating schools and society. I knew pretend-science about black people being genetically more prone to crime was pushed in Mississippi in the 1960s by so-called intellectuals like Carleton Putnam, a graduate of Columbia and Princeton, who wrote the racist book, "Race and Reason: A Yankee View." I knew our own Bill Simmons, head of the Citizen's Council, pushed that book locally, along with his close friend, Ross Barnett, even hosting a "Race and Reason Day."
I did not know, however, that a federal judge had codified lies about how black children in the 1960s were genetically inferior. The most uplifting part of Arielle's jarring story is showing how African American students like attorney and former Judge Robert Gibbs proved the bigots wrong.
What you may not know about how Jackson's public schools were forced to integrate, followed immediately by thousands of white families fleeing schools, based largely on back science.
The most depressing part, though, is how easily inherited racism has long pickled too many white brains—leading many to swallow the tripe that black families cannot live up to societal standards of excellence and safety. We hear it today in a slightly tempered form every time someone blames "the black family" or refers to the "culture" in the black neighborhoods that most white people refuse to visit and historically helped create, segregate, ignore and neglect.
We can stipulate that strong families of any race or ethnicity are important. And even though a Centers for Disease Control study showed that black fathers are, over all, more engaged daily with their children than white dads, we also know that too many black families in Jackson suffer from generational poverty and trauma, and are victims of violence. Many have lost fathers and mothers to prison, often due to minor drug charges. And far too many black children are offered an inadequate education.
Arielle's story helps us comprehend the mythical inferiority shell game white racists played to keep black children from getting an equal education in Jackson. To repair JPS today, it is vital to study the circular logic that our grands and great-grands used to deny equitable education then. Judge Mize surmised that black students under-performed white kids on tests; therefore, they were inferior and didn't deserve equal resources to help them perform better.
It was as absurd then as it is now to ignore gaps in resources and the effects of embedded poverty, trauma and discrimination—long enforced by under-resourced schools, the state-funded Sovereignty Commission and the Ku Klux Klan—that powered the cycle of under-performance.
Then there was Bill Simmons of the Citizen's Council working with scientific racists nationally to keep schools segregated and black schools underfunded. He even told teenager Alan Huffman's dad in 1970 that his son needed psychiatric help for questioning black-inferiority claims Simmons pushed in the Council magazine, which Huffman read in his Council school library before transferring to Murrah.
Simmons' army of "upstanding" citizens fought to ensure that black kids wouldn't succeed and labeled them inferior if they didn't. That is evil, twisted logic.
That was then, but if you look at Jackson today, it's obvious that Old Man Simmons has won so far. In 1970, panicked white families took the racist bait and fled our public schools, which they had gladly funded before black children got to attend them. Their tax base and resources followed, and JPS schools started serving mostly poor black children. Generational racism, which doesn't have to be intentional and is rooted in false superiority beliefs, means most white Jackson families, and many black ones, now reject public schools.
Imagine if they had stayed and worked together with black parents, forming diverse PTAs, getting to know each other, navigating differences—instead of fleeing integrating schools and neighborhoods, leaving behind children a federal judge proclaimed were inferior and couldn't excel.
Instead, too many kids of all races are going to school with minimum contact with "the other." There is nothing "well-educated" about that, and we see the effects in national divides, racist policing that increases crime and a spike in hate attacks.
Bottom line: Jackson has long been saddled with conniving white lies resulting in under-funded and segregated schools before 1969 and devastating re-segregation since 1970. The scam allows the Legislature to keep even "adequate" resources out of our majority-black schools, and for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves to say out loud that "high-performing" (wealthier, whiter) districts should be rewarded with more resources siphoned from "failing" majority-black districts.
JFP's stories about the state takeover of the Jackson Public Schools district
But there's new hope now of collapsing the house of cards. Gov. Phil Bryant, who attended the racist Council McCluer school, and Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, a JPS alum and son of a black-power activist, recently announced they were collaborating with a politically and racially diverse team of experts to help local schools improve from the "F" rating they've fallen to since white families bolted in 1970. Maybe this unlikely alliance, even if late, can roll back the con game against public schools.
Most of us did not make those horrendous decisions back then, but we can all be part of the solution now if we're willing to have hard conversations and seek meaningful solutions. We owe it both to kids long branded as inferior and those brainwashed to spread despicable lies about their fellow human beings.
Read more stories by Donna Ladd and follow her on Twitter at @donnerkay.