It was the late spring 1953, and Gov. Hugh White had called a crucial special session of the Mississippi Legislature. He needed to mobilize a group of moderate lawmakers. If he could get the numbers right, White would ask them to do something that would make them hated throughout the state.
If White could work his agenda, lawmakers could maintain Mississippi's way of life—whites calling the shots and making sure their own needs were taken care of—at the expense of black people whose ancestors had toiled to build the country, but they would have to half-heartedly satisfy African Americans' growing demands for equality.
White was not a die-hard Dixiecrat like many Mississippi lawmakers, but he hoped his state might be able to step around what he thought the U.S. Supreme Court was about to do: declare the dual separate-but-not-equal educational system in the South unconstitutional.
The governor knew he could depend on progressive-thinking lawmakers like William Winter, a representative from Grenada. He hoped to convince other legislators to do enough to get by. He knew that even the Supreme Court didn't really want to mess with the way things were—the way they had been for 450 years.
"The Supreme Court had put off the decision for a year," Winter said, "and we didn't know at the time, but (the justices) were terribly divided."
In December 1952, civil-rights attorney Thurgood Marshall argued the first round of Oliver Brown et al v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., before the high court. With Brown looming, the Mississippi Legislature adopted sweeping reforms that would begin to set right the terrible imbalance between black and white education, but keep firmly in place a black school system and a white one.
"That was the original intent," Winter said. "There was a recognition that we had ignored the needs of public education for too long."
Gov. White, whom political writer Bill Minor says now was a true "compassionate conservative," told the Legislative Education Committee to find a remedy that would satisfy the "separate but equal doctrine." Minor, who was threatened himself for his gutsy news reporting on racial issues, said these lawmakers were "courageous" for their willingness to "grapple with this tough issue."
Winter said it was simply the right thing to do. "We adopted the recommendations of the Legislative Education Committee," he said, "and passed the Minimum Foundation Program"—an education plan that forms the foundation of today's system.
Lawmakers created the Education Finance Commission to oversee the funding of this massive reorganization. They allocated millions of dollars for schools, vowing that $20 million would be used to build new facilities for black children. They also raised black teachers' pay; it had been much less than that of white teachers.
Then in December 1953, Marshall and his team came before the court again with the second round of arguments for Brown. By all accounts, Marshall was magnificent. The court would consider Brown for the next five months while the country anxiously waited and much of the world watched with intense interest.
On May 17, 1954, a unanimous decision came down: "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but unequal has no place," Chief Justice Warren wrote. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Brown had struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine set up 50 years earlier by Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled that racial segregation was not unconstitutional after a black man, Homer Plessy, challenged Louisiana's law segregating trains by race. Plessy was the federal nod that Southern lawmakers needed to pass Jim Crow laws affecting everything from education to social situations to political power.
The 1954 decision shook the entire world socially, politically and economically, laid the foundation for new civil rights laws, policies and practices, and prompted civil rights struggles around the globe—but, ironically, it would not be as successful in education.
Mississippi, like most of the 17 Southern states with segregated schools, at first ignored Brown, then fiercely fought it. "A lot of them (lawmakers) wanted to close public schools," Winter said. "That was a very strongly held opinion. But it was the minority opinion, and wiser heads prevailed."
But the state did adopt a law closing public schools in December 1954 that was never enforced. Lawmakers pouted and would not release the funding they had allocated in White's special session for two years. Across the South, massive resistance to desegregation was building.
'The Uptown Klan'
Lottie Thornton, an educator at then-Jackson College, was married the day before the Brown decision came down. "People were frightened for their children, for themselves," she said.
In 1954, the Citizens' Council formed in Indianola two months after Brown and established its initial headquarters in Greenwood. (The national headquarters would move to downtown Jackson near the Governor's Mansion.) Thousands of whites joined. Many of them were professionals or political leaders and business movers and shakers. Their numbers quickly swelled. "At one time, they claimed to have 80,000 members," Minor said of the group that outspoken newspaper editor Hodding Carter Jr. dubbed the "uptown Klan." While the Ku Klux Klan, which resurfaced in Mississippi in the early 1960s, used violence against blacks and white supporters of desegregation, the Citizens' Council used the threat of economic reprisals.
In its early years, the Citizens' Council was determined to stop school desegregation, but in the 1960s shifted its strategy to ensuring that the races would be kept separate even if the schools were forced to desegregate. The CCA stated in its "Manual for Southerners," its handbook for fifth- and sixth-graders: "The Race-Mixers even want Negroes and whites to date each other. They know that if the boys and girls share the school room, lunch room, dances, sports, rest rooms and playgrounds, then the boys and girls will want to date each other."
In 1954, during the heat of the Brown decision, Medgar Evers became field secretary for Mississippi's state office of the NAACP. His office was located at 1072 Lynch Street in the heart of Jackson's African-American community, and he immediately won over black people.
"He was such a gentleman, such a wonderful man," Lottie Thornton said. "People absolutely adored him."
Evers immediately started organizing, taking care to involve youth. He mobilized churches, black organizations and working people. Evers had three goals for African Americans: he wanted the vote; he wanted economic power; and he wanted quality education. "The Negro Mississippian … wants the public schools and colleges desegregated so that his children can receive the best education that Mississippi has to offer," he said on a TV address in May 1963, nine years after the Brown decision and a month before he was assassinated.
"If ever there was anyone who knew what he was meant to do, it was Medgar," said his widow, Myrlie Evers Williams. "He was focused."
But many whites were just as focused on treating blacks unequally. Educational facilities and resources for black schools remained extremely inadequate for years after Brown. Most school superintendents and school boards were white; black school superintendents, who had no official power, supervised black schools—one or two-room buildings where children of all ages, and some adults, all studied together.
"They (black superintendents) fought for the left-over crumbs for black schools," said Dr. Ivory Phillips, dean of the School of Education at Jackson State .
'All Deliberate Speed'
Black people were tired of leftovers, but the problem with Brown was that it had not provided the method by which schools were to desegregate. In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown II that desegregation should occur with "all deliberate speed"—an act of backpedaling that meant little to whites who had no intention of implementing Brown anyway.
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till's murder by white men in Money, Miss., in 1955 helped set off the modern Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks' refusal to give her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, further fired black people's ain't-gon'-let nobody-turn-me-round determination that things would change; many whites were just as determined that they would remain the same.
In 1957, nine black students tried to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. President Dwight Eisenhower called in federal troops to protect them. The mob beat black reporters who had come to cover the story, yelled racial epithets and called for the white students to come out of the school as black students entered.
"We were afraid—very afraid—walking between guards and angry white people," Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, said at Jackson State this spring.
"I just couldn't believe that there were actually white men who would come after children, who would stand around with chains and things waiting to hurt them outside of schools," Thornton said. She and other blacks were worried that things would get that crazy in Mississippi.
But in 1958, Mississippi built facilities for black children that were large enough to accommodate students who had been attending one-room and two-room schools. More than 1,500 districts across the state merged into 148. Buildings for black children looked impressive from the outside, but were generally located in the worst sites available—near cemeteries and train tracks, and the resources were not nearly the same as those of whites.
Black people knew a change had to come. They knew they needed the vote, and they knew that education was the key to freedom. They might not have known what Brown would cost.
Whites resisted in various ways in different school districts, depending on the number of blacks and their economic status, the positions that local white leaders took, and whether or not the local media was overtly racist, as it was in Jackson and in Madison County. In places where there were many poor whites and fewer economic opportunities, or outsiders came to help blacks, resistance to Brown was even stronger and often violent.
'Whipped into a Frenzy'
Across the state, black people were routinely beaten, jailed for nothing and hounded by law enforcement. And "The Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News were a part of the problem," Minor said. "They were owned by the Hedermans, who supported segregation, and the papers contributed to this whole atmosphere of defying desegregation." Indeed, the day after the Brown decision came down, the Jackson Daily News ran a front-page editorial entitled "Bloodstains On White Marble Steps."
"The United States Supreme Court decision abolishing segregation in the public schools of the nation, even when equal but separate facilities are provided, is the worst thing that has happened in the South since carpetbaggers and scalawags took charge of our civil government in reconstruction days," the paper stated.
Southern states resisted desegregation. In Virginia, the governor closed public schools, and vouchers, funded with public money, were provided to white parents so they could send their children to private schools. Whites established private schools or educated their children at home. Some black and white teachers volunteered to teach at racially mixed "free schools."
States filed lawsuits and tried tactic after tactic to avoid desegregation. Mississippi had done nothing to desegregate schools, but relations between blacks and whites were getting tenser.
In 1958, moderate Gov. J.P. Coleman commented in an article reprinted in The Southern School News that he was going to spend the rest of his term devoted to "preserving peace and quiet among the races," because the state of a state "depends to a large degree on who is sitting in the governor's chair."
He was absolutely right. In 1959, white supremacist Ross Barnett was elected governor. A world-class demagogue, he stirred up whites with outrageous comments that appealed to their worst fears and instincts. Barnett did the work of the Citizens' Council—which had helped get him elected—putting members into political offices and prestigious positions. He helped create and fund with public money the Sovereignty Commission, an organization that spied on and tried to intimidate anyone that it even thought might help African Americans to progress.
Many white Mississippians believed that if they just resisted long enough and intensely enough that as another demagogue, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, put it: "no power on earth" can make us desegregate our schools.
"He traveled across the South saying things like that," Winter recalls of Thurmond. Whites were "whipped into a frenzy," he said. "People didn't want to give up their way of life. They were led down a blind alley. It was a confusing, difficult time that's hard to understand unless you lived through it."
If progressive whites like Winter had it tough, black people caught pure hell. With remarkable courage and dedication, some black Mississippians rallied behind Medgar Evers even after he started the dangerous insistence that white-owned establishments employ blacks and that they be granted access to all public spaces.
'An invisible Army'
An invisible army formed of men who had Evers' back and of women who were willing to help any way they could. All of them had to stay below whites' radar, however. "If they joined the NAACP, their names were published in the paper," Evers-Williams said. "Banks would call in loans on their homes. They would lose their jobs. Now that was bravery—to make that kind of sacrifice."
Evers sued on behalf of his son because desegregation was stalled in Jackson, but on June 12, 1963, he was murdered in his driveway by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, a Citizens' Council member, who would not be convicted of the crime for 30 years. Evers' death mobilized African Americans in the state. "The vote was primary after his death," Minor said, "and education was secondary."
In 1964, the year the Votings Rights Act passed, the Citizens' Council started the tax-exempt Council School Foundation, which would use donations from prominent Jacksonians to open numerous white academies in Jackson over the next decade. The administrator of the Citizens' Council of America and editor of its newspaper, William J. Simmons, helped found the Mississippi Private School Association, which today still governs the state's private academies, many of which use the Confederate flag as a school icon.
The next year, the 1965 Civil Rights Act was passed, and African Americans became even more insistent on their right to education. Mississippi lawmakers passed several laws that were simply avoidances. The "freedom of choice" school plan allowed black students to attend school in any district they wanted. White leaders counted on black parents not sending their children into the hostile environments of all-white schools. Few did. Only families in Jackson, Leake County and Biloxi used the plan that first year, Minor remembers. Fewer than 5 percent of the black children in Jackson used the plan, according to Dr. Jeanne Middleton-Hairston, who wrote a thesis about Singleton v. Jackson Municipal Schools, the suit Evers originally filed.
Blacks who used the plan were intimidated. "When black parents filled out the papers for the 'freedom of choice' program, their names were published in the newspapers," Middleton-Hairston said. "If people weren't business owners, if they depended on somebody else for a job, this was a signal to their employers to fire them."
Another option was the grade-a-year plan that allowed schools to integrate one grade per year, which meant that it would have taken most districts more than a decade to desegregate—with all deliberate speed, exactly the rate at which Southern lawmakers wanted to move.
No More Rope-a-dope
By fall 1969, all but three of the state's 148 districts had token desegregation, but the Supreme Court had had enough of Southern states' rope-a-dope tactics. In October 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Holmes that "all deliberate speed is no longer constitutionally permissible ... every school district must terminate dual systems at once and must operate now and hereafter as unitary schools." Mississippi had dragged its feet the longest, but 30 school districts had to desegregate immediately. The schools were officially de-segregated in February 1970.
Black students were beaten, verbally abused And ridiculed by students, and some white teachers openly said that black children were intellectually inferior to whites. Middleton-Hairston remembers classmates telling her they had acid thrown at their faces in chemistry class and their books flushed down the toilet,—"just any thing to try to stop us from pursuing our right to an education," she said.
Even under those conditions, some students had the "psychological toughness" to excel and out-perform whites, Phillips said, and they were still cheated. He remembers that when several black students at a white high school in Bolivar County had the top grades in their senior class, they were told that they couldn't be valedictorians and salutatorians because they had not been at the school for the required four years. And those were not isolated cases.
Some schools put black students into special education classes, no matter what their capabilities. Others let black teachers only teach black students. Some initiated team teaching—pairing a black with a white teacher, said Middleton-Hairston, who is director of the Children's Defense Fund's Freedom Schools. "Team teaching is a wonderful pedagogical tool, but it's interesting that it just happened to be implemented during integration."
Some white parents believed that black teachers were not as capable or as qualified as white teachers, but there is little data comparing the difference between black and white teachers' credentials. Education had been the privilege of rich white males, and while white women, who made up the faculties of most white schools, certainly had greater access to education than black people, many black teachers were well-educated, attending the best schools where they pursued advanced degrees.
"Many of the best and the brightest in the black community became teachers," Middleton-Hairston said. "These were Jim Crow times, and teaching was one of the only (careers) open to them."
More than 38,000 black educators lost jobs in the 17 Southern states that desegregated schools. Thornton still remembers the pain of one black principal in Columbia who lost his job.
"His children used to ask him if they could go to the school and play and he would tell them: 'No, I'm not the principal there anymore.' I think that hurt him more than losing his job—the way he changed in the eyes of his children," Thornton said. "No parent ever wants to look small in their children's eyes."
'And then Whites Fled'
By the fall of 1970—16 years after the Brown decision—schools were desegregated. The cost had been enormous and the scars are still evident. William Winter, who became governor in 1980 and implemented one of the most sweeping educational reforms in the state's history in 1982, said those two decades should have been used to make progress.
"If we had used those 20 years more productively," he said, "things would have turned out a whole lot better."
The Citizens' Councils continued to establish private academies across the state. In 1969, CCA administrator Simmons told The New York Times that the Council was operating more than 150 all-white schools in three states with more than 9,000 students. Those numbers would increase with the 1970 order.
The Madison County Herald, also owned by the Hederman family, had been on a mission to stop desegregation; now it set out to get white parents to put their children in private schools. Between 50,000 and 60,000 white children attended Mississippi private schools by the mid-'70s, and that included church-run schools. "Almost 40 percent of (white) elementary school students left public schools," Middleton-Hairston said.
Thornton was frightened of public schools and sent her only child to St. Andrews in Jackson, thinking that a predominantly white Episcopal school would be safer. She said her daughter never complained of racism, but one year when she was in junior high school, she announced that she was "tired of going to a white school," and would not be returning to St Andrews, Thornton recalled.
"She probably was being discriminated against and just said she was tired."
Today schools are largely re-segregated with Jackson Public Schools and most Delta districts almost all black. And public schools face the same dilemma they did 50 years ago: the need for enough funding. "It was always about getting adequate funding for black schools, enough resources and equal pay for black teachers," Middleton-Hairston said. "And we see what the Legislature is saying right now: It can't come up with the money for education."