GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Sixty-one years and one day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial school segregation was illegal in Brown vs. Board of Education, lawyers Monday presented clashing visions of what one Mississippi school district must do to comply with that ruling.
The U.S. Department of Justice and private plaintiffs told U.S. District Judge Debra Brown that the 3,700-student Cleveland school district should consolidate its two middle schools and two high schools. They said making all older students attend school together will end a system where D.M. Smith Middle School and East Side High School, once all-black by law, remain without white students.
"Sixty-one years after Brown, the time for full desegregation is now," Department of Justice attorney Joseph Wardenski told Brown in opening arguments. "The district has not yet fully satisfied its constitutional obligation to eradicate the vestiges of segregation, root and branch. Both East Side and D.M. Smith are, and always have been, racially isolated, 100 percent black schools."
The Cleveland school district predicted mandatory consolidation will cause the white minority, now 28 percent of students, to flee. Heavily or all-black schools would make efforts to mix white and black children fruitless. The district said it can meet desegregation obligations by relying on magnet programs to encourage voluntary desegregation.
"The Department of Justice plan is one that has failed many, many times in many other districts," district lawyer Gerald Jacks told Brown. "History has proven these plans do not work."
Brown is hearing evidence after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent back a previous court order for more work. U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson had ordered the district to allow parents to enroll children freely in either the two all-black schools, or in Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Junior High School. More than 44 percent of students at each are white.
Christine Rossell, a Boston University professor testifying for the district, has estimated up to half the 500 white middle school and high school students will leave if schools are consolidated. On the other hand, she said, integration is improving in Cleveland by some statistical measures.
"There's nobody who believes that a mandatory reassignment plan — with the exception of the Justice Department — with a 28 percent white school system, is going to be stable over the long term," Rossell testified Monday. "It's just not."
Shakti Belway, representing private plaintiffs in the case, said the two sets of schools have led to disparities in resources and opportunities.
"We must not allow the fear of white flight to hold hostage progress," she said. "Over these generations, there have in fact been victims."
Witnesses for the Cleveland district Monday support two plans it's proposing. Both would retain two high schools; one would merge middle schools.
Rossell said she once supported mandatory reassignment but changed her mind over time, in part because of work on school desegregation in Boston.
"We were telling people they didn't know enough to make choices for themselves," Rossell said. "People don't like being pushed around."
Beverly Hardy, the district's retired magnet school coordinator, said she believes some white parents would send children to East Side for advanced International Baccalaureate classes as well as college classes the district plans to offer through Delta State University.
"The progress that East Side is making, I think that would be a great possibility," Hardy said.
Wardenski noted that IB classes at East Side were designed to attract white students, but none has enrolled full time. He also noted no part-time white students have taken enough IB classes to earn an IB diploma.