Monday, October 28, 2013

Willie Morris' son, David Rae Morris, to screen rough cut of Yazoo resegregation documentary

    David Rae Morris, son of Willie Morris, is producing a documentary on the integration and resegregation of Yazoo City schools. A rough cut of this documentary will be shown at the Overby Center (Farley Hall) Monday, October 28, at 5:30 p.m. I hope to be able to make it.
    David Morris is essentially taking up the issue of Yazoo City school desegregation where his father left off. In the early 1970s he wrote a long magazine article that was expanded into a book entitled Yazoo: integration in a Deep-Southern town. The book ends with Morris expressing his view that everything was going to be just fine. It didn't end up that way.
    I read Morris' book over Christmas and wrote an Amazon review in January 2013. So rather than rehash the issue I will simply reprint my review, which among other things makes the point that what happened in Yazoo City happened in a number of Mississippi towns; Rolling Fork, Leland, and Clarksdale come to mind. I shared my view on what happened in many of these towns in a blog post in which I criticized efforts of the federal government to resegregate Cleveland's public schools.

My Amazon review:
To Morris' eventual dismay, he got it wrong, but an interesting readJanuary 7, 2013
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Willie Morris certainly didn't know it at the time this book - an expansion of a long magazine article - was released, but the subtitle should have read "FAILURE of Integration in a Deep-Southern Town." It would have brought him great sadness and eventually did.

That isn't the way the book leaves off. In fact, Morris completed the book in January 1971 firmly believing that the Yazoo City schools - his home town - had gotten over the "hump" and would successfully integrate. Roughly 150 whites who had fled the public schools at desegregation in January 1970 had returned in September of that year. Morris was confident that whites would continue to return and that the private Manchester Academy would either close or shrink into insignificance.

The Yazoo City integration success was trumpeted by many throughout the 1970s and even the 1980s. But the schools suffered the same fate as many other heavily black public schools that weathered the first wave of white flight. Slowly the whites drifted away, either to private schools or to other school districts. In 1971 the Yazoo City schools remained roughly 40 percent white, even after substantial white flight. Today Yazoo City High School is 99% black.

I purchased the original edition of this book as I got it for a low price used. It was re-released in 2012 with an Afterword by Morris' widow, JoAnne Prichard Morris. It's possible to read most of this Afterword by looking at the Amazon preview, but unless you can get a good deal on a used book it's worth paying extra to have her short Afterword. Morris had first met Prichard when he wrote Yazoo; she was one of two Yazoo City white teachers who volunteered to teach in the formerly all-black school in 1969 under Freedom of Choice. Years later, in 1990, they would marry when Prichard edited a collection of essays that Morris produced for the University of Mississippi Press.

Prichard taught in the Yazoo schools through the 1980s. She sent her children to Yazoo City schools and saw the white enrollment slowly dwindle away. She said Morris was tormented by the fact that he had gotten it so wrong and asks in her Afterword why school integration failed. "What happened?"

The answers are, in part, are actually in Morris' book. He interviews a Yazoo City attorney and former ABA president John Satterfield - an integration opponent - who shared his opinion that the schools would be integrated without violence or incident, but that if the classrooms were fully integrated eventually the school system would be all or almost all black. Satterfield cited the experience of the Washington, D.C., schools, which were desegregated by President Eisenhower and by 1970 were 93 percent black. Satterfield said he saw no basic difference in the character of the people of Washington, D.C. and the people of Yazoo City that would allow full integration to succeed in Yazoo city where it failed with the full support of the federal government.

Morris also has a footnote where he cites claims by others that there are "tipping points," or a certain black percentage that will trigger white flight, citing for example the unpublished Princeton thesis by Luther Munford which pointed out that every school with more than a 50 percent black student population had lost at least 20 percent of its white student population at the point of integration.

I think ultimately where Morris got it wrong is that he agreed with Yazoo City mayor Jeppie Barbour, who said the citizens would just have to stay put and make integration work. "They're here to stay and we're here to stay, and we don't have much other choice," Barbour said. But people did have a choice; they could leave, and many eventually did.

Prichard seems to have made the same mistake in her afterword when she notes that in the 1980s white students began transferring in increasing numbers to white academies. Certainly this may have happened, but this is not what really happened. If you take time to visit the various white-flight academies in Mississippi and count the number of white students in their school composites for the years 1971 to 1975, then count the number of students in the same town's public school composites, what you will find is that the white students haven't simply left the public schools, they have completely left the areas served by almost-all-black schools. If whites had simply transferred to Manchester Academy that school would today have an enrollment of about 1,500. Instead it has an enrollment of under 500. Essentially most of the white working class has moved elsewhere along with much of the middle class; in the case of Yazoo City some have moved to the county schools, some have moved to Madison County, some have even left the state. This has taken place all over Mississippi.

A great irony in recent years is that many of the formerly all-white "segregation" academies are now integrated. The black student presence isn't high, but in many of these private schools five to eight percent of the student body is black. Thus in many towns the white-flight schools are actually more integrated than the public school.

Even though this book is a period piece it is an interesting read. There is some accidental name-dropping by Morris. For example, he describes having dinner with a white Mississippi civil rights lawyer and his black wife - perhaps the first mixed-race couple in Mississippi - and describes the young woman as a recent Sarah Lawrence graduate and aspiring writer by the name of Alice Walker. In recounting the names of 1970 class officers at the newly integrated Yazoo City school Morris mentions the name of newly elected junior class president "Gentle Ben" Williams. In 1972 Williams would become the first black football player on the Ole Miss football team.

I also found it interesting that Morris mentions in passing the extreme violence that black leaders admit and even boast of using against other blacks to enforce a black boycott of white-owned businesses.

One impediment to integration that Morris mentions throughout the book is the difference in ability levels between black and white students. The first semester of integration at Yazoo City (Spring 1970) the school was integrated but the classes remained segregated, which actually helped with the transition. The black classes simply moved to the white high school over the Christmas holidays with no other changes. The next year the classes were integrated. Yet any type of ability grouping has been heavily discouraged if not banned by the federal courts, and I believe the lack of such grouping may have led to much of the white flight in those schools which had at first successfully integrated. Today the ability gap is greater than ever as the white working class has fled, leaving only a more-educated white elite that can afford private school tuition.

(Another cause of white flight that I have casually observed in a number of Mississippi school districts over the years is black-on-black violence. While white students might sometimes be tormented, black-on-white violence is quite rare in most school districts; however, whites frequently respond to serious black-on-black violence events by pulling their children out of public school.)

I had the pleasure of knowing Morris as an Ole Miss student. I never had him as a teacher, but we would frequently visit at the Hoka Theater over Irish coffee and spent a few evenings talking, laughing and arguing almost until the sun came up. My hometown is similar to Yazoo City - a formerly wealthy hill town where cotton was king in 1860 - and I could easily relate to much of his upbringing because much of it was my own. As a student he was editor of the Daily Texan. I would eventually become editor of the Daily Mississippian. I was as conservative as he was liberal. He loved Mississippi, loved history, loved people of all stripes, and absolutely hated social problems which seemed insoluble.

If we truly have a desire to make school integration work, or at least make school desegregation work, I think we have to come to certain agreements. First, few well-to-do black people would want to send their children to a school made up of 90 to 95 percent very poor, white children. No white person wants the opposite. We need to find a way to allow some cluster grouping of students who are friends or relatives outside the classroom, so that even where a school district is 90 percent black a small group of white friends might be allowed to remain in classes together -- or vice versa.

Second, parents want their children to be equally yoked in their classrooms, both in terms of ability and behavior. Students should be grouped both by achievement and a willingness to behave, and such groupings will almost certainly not be racially balanced. One need but read the many blogs of Teacher Corps teachers to know that there are some serious behavioral problems with many students in Delta schools, many of which seem to be far worse than when Morris wrote this book in 1971. These problems simply do not exist at most private schools. I suppose these Teacher Corps teachers - who do wonderful work - will some day be told to stop recording their experiences, because few educated, middle-class, white people of my acquaintance would ever send their child into such an environment, and as I said earlier many blacks are now finding their way to private schools for the same reason.

In short, if we want to have racial integration we have to be willing to have segregation by achievement and behavior. The courts and the black leadership have shown little willingness to allow this; until they do, in heavily black areas there can be no school integration.

I happen to support school vouchers. Vouchers take the left-wing, California-educator types out of the equation and allows parents to find schools with academic, dress, and behavior standards that suit their children's needs. But again, such vouchers would result in school integration and there are too many people out there opposed to school integration except on the government's terms.

I don't think I ever visited with Morris after I graduated from law school in 1988; maybe once. While he enjoyed being back in Mississippi, his years at Ole Miss were often spent in a bit of an off-and-on depressed funk. I heard through friends after a couple of years that he had remarried and that his wife was like a tonic for him and had made him truly happy. He was described as a new man. So I'm glad he and Prichard found each other and had almost 10 years together, and I'm glad she released this book.

My understanding is that Morris' son David has done the field work for a short film on Yazoo School integration and why it failed. I wish he or another documentary maker would expand it to include all the other school districts which seemed to have integrated successfully only to become 99 percent black 30 years later. In any event, I look forward to seeing this film should it ever be released.

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