A History of Freedom of Choice
A brief history of Freedom of Choice is in order. In the 1960s, under court pressure to desegregate, school districts across the South adopted Freedom of Choice desegregation plans whereby students were allowed to attend the school of their choice. In practice this meant few or no whites chose to attend the formerly "black" schools while a relatively small number of blacks attended the former "white" schools, thus desegregating them but not fulling integrating the schools. In many cases blacks were pressured into not enrolling their children in the formerly "white" schools.
The Supreme Court essentially outlawed the notion of "Freedom of Choice" in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 (1968). In that case most black school children in New Kent County, Va., continued to choose to attend the formerly black school after being given a choice of schools to attend.
This case was applied to Mississippi with the Alexander v. Holmes County Bd. of Ed., 396 US 19 (1969) ruling and later Singleton v. Jackson Municipal Separate School Dist., 419 F. 2d 1211, 5th Circuit (1970). Of interest is the Court's ruling that the Holly Springs, Miss., school district could not assign students to differing schools based on achievement: "...testing cannot be employed in any event until unitary school systems have been established." Given the disparities in student achievement for many parents this was simply unacceptable. (For smaller communities a "unitary" school system generally meant a consolidated school. For larger ones it meant that there were no racially identifiable schools and that race was not being used as a limiting factor in school assignments or district mapping).
The end of Delta integrated schools
After 1970 lots of Mississippi schools successfully integrated. The key factor on whether or not a school successfully integrated was the percentage of minority students -- often referred to as the "tipping point" -- living in the district. In the Delta and former cotton towns most public schools either never integrated at all or integrated successfully and then resegregated as whites drifted away. Most small-town and rural schools with less than a 45 percent black student population managed to successfully integrate.
But as Judge Davidson noted in his opinion on the Cleveland schools, there are only two school districts in the entire Delta with a substantial white enrollment: the Western Line School District in Washington County and the Cleveland School District. Although Davidson didn't quite say so, by seeking force Cleveland to consolidate its schools, the U.S. Justice Department sought to reduce that number to one. From his opinion:
After the United States Supreme Court ordered desegregation of public schools "with all deliberate speed," private schools began to dot the landscape, and Caucasian families pulled their children out of the public school system to send them to those private schools in an effort to bypass desegregation. What resulted was a majority-African-American enrollment in Delta school districts -- far from the racially integrated utopia contemplated by Brown v. Board of Education and its progeny. Currently, most Delta school districts have 95% or greater African-American enrollment and 5% or less Caucasian enrollment. Most Delta school districts also fare poorly in state testing.The federal courts of the 1970 integration era took an amazingly cavalier attitude towards the long-term effects of their rulings on the communities affected by them. Thus the Fifth Circuit, in United States v. Sunflower County School District, 430 F. 2d 839, 5th Circuit (1970), declared,
We are not unmindful of the difficulties involved in this case where the population of students of the entire School District reflects a marked racial imbalance — 85.7% black and 14.3% white. But we cannot alter the requirements of the law because of this factor.And so the courts instead imposed remedies that ensured that many Delta communities would be served only by all-black public schools. The courts intentionally turned entire swaths of America and many of our inner cities into wastelands by ruling in ways that they knew or should have known would result in the long-term failure of integration. The courts succeeded, but at what cost?
It didn't have to be this way
Had the courts been willing to allow the creation of schools in which blacks and whites were roughly equal in number then today our state would be served by a lot more integrated schools. Schools like Cleveland High School. Instead the courts insisted on schools and districts with a perfect racial balance, even if that balance was achieved by making the schools all black.
The idea of assigning students to schools based on ability, once sought by many districts, is a good one. My one observation from my school years is that students of limited ability do everything they can to disrupt the education of better students. This is true of both blacks and whites. If white parents could have been assured that their children would be in a school setting where their peers were their academic and behavioral equals, many would not have fled the public schools.
In fact, the best way to find out how to make integration work is to ask some of the people who started out with the most devotion to making it work. Yazoo City, Rolling Fork, Leland, and other communities all had prominent families who very publicly supported public schools following integration. They sent their children to public school; some graduated, some transferred to private schools after a few years. Of those white children who did graduate from most Delta public schools, virtually all have moved or send their children to private schools. Has anyone ever bothered to ask them what happened?
Pulitzer-winner Douglas Blackmon penned a Harper's Magazine article in 1992, "The Resegregation of a Southern School," in which he laments the failure of integration in Leland. Blackmon was a first-grader in 1970 when the Leland schools fully integrated.
That spring, sixty white faces peered out from the Leland senior-class portrait. In 1982, when my class was the first to graduate after twelve full years of black and white children studying together, only two dozen whites remained in a class of just under ninety.To Blackmon's credit he doesn't gloss over problems facing white students attending the Leland schools.
At school, racial tension characterized the daily dynamic. Fistfights on the playground between whites and blacks were routine, and being harassed by blacks as I walked home through their neighborhood after school was so common that I was amazed later to learn that anyone else had grown up differently. The school stopped sponsoring senior proms, student banquets, senior trips, and other social gatherings long before I was old enough to know what they were.Amid the conflict, Blackmon feels he was well served by attending the Leland Public Schools and decries the fact that local residents are no longer devoted to making an integrated school system work:
Despite the racial tensions, we whites were well served by the integrated public schools. We gained from the rough-and-tumble mix of cultures and, I think, were strengthened by the confrontations it sparked.While I would not deny Blackmon or others things which they value, I think most parents and students aren't looking for a "rough-and-tumble" environment for their children. Most parents and students don't want a school where petty racial violence and harassment is routine.
* * * *Personal convenience has prevailed over community good. The moral conviction that integrated my school has given way to an indifference and numbness – the same numbness that allowed me (and most white Deltans) to accept abject black poverty just a stone’s throw away from our own homes. Today, many of the children of the early white graduates of Leland’s integrated public schools are attending private academies.
To understand why communities such as Leland, Yazoo City, or many others supported integrated schools in the 1970s but fail to do so today to read a review of Ellen Brantlinger's Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage written by Peter Schmidt, an editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The newspaper review, entitled "When Loving Parents Choose Segregation," describes how Brantlinger interviewed 20 liberal parents -- many her friends -- and found that they all supported progressive educational ideas and racial and socio-economic integration. But when it came to their kids -- Whoa Nelly! -- they all wanted their children in schools populated almost exclusively with children of their own social class and they wanted their children to benefit from traditional, not progressive, teaching techniques.
Schmidt's review ought to be required reading for every jurist, congressman and government worker in America. He sums the issue up perfectly:
I have watched enough of the Discovery Channel to know not to get between a bear and its cub. If they have not learned the lesson already, school districts that ask parents to compromise their children's future for some greater social good need to realize that they are up against a similarly primal force.If Leland had maintained two schools, with students assigned to one or the other based on academic achievement and ability, today Leland would have one fully integrated school and one mostly black school. Most whites of limited academic ability would leave or go to private school before attending an all-black school, just as whites have done today. But so what? Leland would have an integrated school.
If the courts had allowed the assignment of students based on achievement most or all of this bullying and friction would have been eliminated. Leland and Clarksdale and Greenwood and Rolling Fork and Yazoo City and Helena, Arkansas and Holly Springs would all today have a quality, integrated school system like that in Cleveland. But the courts didn't allow that, and so today communities across Mississippi are served by segregated rather than integrated schools.
Can the courts dare say "We were wrong"?
In 1992 I was sharing a cocktail with a prominent planter who strongly supported the public schools during integration and urged his fellow citizens not to open a private school. He sent his children to public school. But he eventually came to the conclusion that the private academy was both an asset and a necessity to the community. In other words, he was wrong. I rarely remember conversations well enough 20 years later to quote them, but I recall our conversation well enough to quote him almost verbatim:
I did everything I could to stop them from opening that private school. They burned three crosses in my front yard. I wouldn't dare set foot on that campus today for fear that some redneck might try to beat me up. But all I can say now is thank God for that private school because if we didn't have it there would have been an explosion by now. Either that or all the white people would have just packed up and left.The problem with the school integration rulings of 1968-70 is that the courts essentially guaranteed the failure of integration in many communities. Instead of attempting to successfully integrate the schools the courts seemed hell-bent on punishing white people. What the courts failed to consider is that people have feet. People can move. And they did. Some went to private schools. Even more just packed up and left, leaving behind regions and cities in economic ruin.
Imagine if the courts had taken the time to review the facts on the ground in each community and issue orders that would have been designed to promote integration and ensure academic excellence. For some communities a single, consolidated school might work fine. For others, assignment by achievement and ability would have maintained academic excellence and community support. For larger cities, a tiered system like that used in New York -- with admission to all schools based on test scores -- would have created outstanding, integrated schools. And no, the demographics of such tiered schools never reflect those of the community at large; they aren't supposed to. They are supposed to group students by achievement so that each child can be in a classroom of equally yoked children learning as much as possible as quickly as possible.
What's ahead for Cleveland?
It's rather amazing that Cleveland was not targeted by the Justice Department years ago. The East Side schools are clearly racially identifiable -- they apparently have no white students enrolled.
Some fraternity brothers of mine told me years ago that former Sen. Jim Eastland struck a deal with the Justice Dept. whereby Cleveland was to be let alone in exchange for some favor or another. If so, it is ironic that the senator known for years as a staunch segregationist is responsible for more Delta whites attending integrated schools than any other elected official or federal judge who ever held office.
But for the two attendance zones Cleveland's story would be identical to that of every other city in the Delta. A consolidated school, either in 1970 or today, would push Cleveland well over the "tipping point" at which affluent whites start to abandon public schools. So now the question is, will Judge Davidson's ruling be allowed to stand? Will Cleveland be allowed to have an integrated public school?
A report submitted by the school district recounted the recent sad story of the McComb School District after a court ordered it to sprinkle the tiny number of white students it had equally among homerooms. White enrollment dropped from 13.5 percent white to eight percent white. "It cannot be emphasized enough that there can be no integration without whites. An all-black school system may be racially balanced, but it is not integrated in a way that most sensible people would define that word," the report said. Unfortunately Judge Davidson did not cite this report in his opinion.
In ordering the Freedom of Choice plan, Judge Davidson said a major factor was the fact that the East Side schools were in better condition that the racially mixed Cleveland High, and both the school board chairman and school superintendent are black. From his opinion:
The Court does not order consolidation of the two high schools and two junior high schools. However, the Court is of the opinion that the attendance zones, as defined by the former railroad tracks in Cleveland, perpetuate vestiges of racial segregation. The high school and junior high school students should have a true freedom of choice to attend either high school and either junior high school. Accordingly, the Court orders that the heretofore-established attendance zones shall be abolished, thus establishing an open-enrollment procedure.There can be no question but that Judge Davidson's ruling will produce the maximum amount of school integration in the Cleveland School District. Now the question is which the federal government or appeals courts want more: integration or perfect balance.
Ruling says Delta doesn't begin at the Peabody Hotel
For possibly the first time there has been a judicial finding of fact that the Mississippi Delta does not begin in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. From Davidson's opinion:
Although it has been said that the Mississippi Delta "begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg," the Mississippi Delta actually consists of about fifteen Mississippi counties with an approximate total population of 350,575 persons, 225,653 of which are African American and 119,499 of which are Caucasian.I guess the judge couldn't get it all right.