62 years after segregation was ruled unconstitutional, Mississippi school district is ordered to comply

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Two students studying on wall, low section

(CNN) — Living on the “other side of the tracks” isn’t just a cheap idiom in Cleveland, Mississippi.

Court documents show that 62 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, the schools in this west Mississippi town of 12,000 are still divided, black and white — and the abandoned Illinois Central Railroad tracks that run through town serve as the line of demarcation.

“Half of Cleveland’s schools — the schools on the east side of the railroad tracks — are all black or virtually all black. The majority of the schools on the west side of the railroad tracks, including Cleveland High School, Margaret Green Junior High School, and Parks Elementary School, enroll a student body that is at least 20% more white than the student population,” read a Friday federal court opinion ordering the integration of the district’s schools.

The case, which has been navigating the judicial system for more than 50 years, began when 131 minor children of Bolivar County, through their parents and guardians, filed an action claiming that what is now the Cleveland School District maintained a policy of operating schools “on a racially segregated basis.”

“The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education,” U.S. District Judge Debra M. Brown wrote in her decision.

“This failure, whether born of good faith, bad faith, or some combination of the two, has placed Cleveland in the unenviable position of operating under a desegregation order long after schools in bastions of segregation like Boston, Jackson, and Mobile have been declared unitary.”

Going forward

Brown’s decision involved competing plans to desegregate the schools, two put forward by the school district and another by the federal government.

The federally proposed plan, which calls for consolidating the district’s high schools and middle schools at the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, was chosen.

Both parties were directed to give the court a proposed timeline to implement the federal plan within 21 days of the order.

“Six decades after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared that ‘separate but equal has no place’ in public schools, this decision serves as a reminder to districts that delaying desegregation obligations is both unacceptable and unconstitutional,” said Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

“This victory creates new opportunities for the children of Cleveland to learn, play and thrive together. The court’s ruling will result in the immediate and effective desegregation of the district’s middle school and high school program for the first time in the district’s more than century-long history.”

Holmes Adams, an attorney for the Bolivar County Board of Education, told The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson the state capital, that the board is still reviewing the opinion and will decide whether to appeal after “fully digesting” the opinion.

CNN has independently attempted to reach Adams for comment.

Five decades in the courts

The Bolivar County parents and guardians filed the original complaint “on their own behalf and on behalf of all other Negro children and parents” about 11 years after Brown v. BOE.

Those parents spoke of the disadvantages they felt their children faced in a supposedly separate but equal system, and many of those concerns were echoed by parents, faith leader, former teachers and coaches who testified in federal court in 2012 and 2015.

“They described the stigma long associated with the district’s black schools and the sense among black children in the community that white children attended better schools,” the ruling said. “They testified that consolidation was the only way to bridge the divide and expressed a willingness to take the steps, however difficult, to secure equal educational opportunities for their children and grandchildren.

To see the case’s journey in more detail, follow the timeline below.

The Cleveland School District enrolls about 3,600 students, about 67% of who are black and 29% are white.

Four of the 11 schools in the district, however, have student bodies that are 95% black or higher: Cypress Park Elementary School, D.M. Smith Middle School, East Side High School and Nailor Elementary School.

Those schools sit on the east side of the tracks, and some residents spoke to the tradition of the district’s “track schools.”

“One African-American parent in the District spoke of ‘being outcast because we are the track schools, a school on this side of the track and a school on that side of the track,’ ” the ruling said.

Still, not all residents supported the plan to just combine schools.

District officials unanimously opposed the proposal when testifying. One board member called the loss of choice in schools for his children “insulting,” according to court documents.

Many were concerned about the loss of extracurricular and educational opportunities that came with having more schools.

The district proposals

In Friday’s ruling, Judge Brown called the two proposals put forward by the school district unconstitutional.

The district’s “Plan A” centered on giving parents and students more academic choices.

Eighth-graders, for example, would be given an opportunity to enroll at either of the district’s high schools, and admission would be granted on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The plan also aimed to improve academic offerings at East Side High.

Judge Brown, however, ruled against the plan because similar “freedom of choice” measures had not worked to help achieve desegregation.

“Because Plan A’s freedom of choice plan would leave D.M. Smith and East Side High as one-race schools, the plan is unconstitutional,” she said.

The other plan would have put all the high school students in one of the schools, and then turned the other into a [science, technology, engineering and math] magnet with local arts partnerships. The middle schools would be combined, and the extra space would then be used for the elementary school.

Brown called this plan inadequate and infeasible. She also said it “unreasonably delays desegregation” for the district’s middle schools.