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Ruling on racial isolation in Miss. schools reflects troubling broader trend

Walthall County NAACP branch leader Clennel Brown filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department that led to a federal judge's ruling that a county policy was effectively resegregating schools.
Walthall County NAACP branch leader Clennel Brown filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department that led to a federal judge's ruling that a county policy was effectively resegregating schools. (Miguel Juarez - For The Washington Post)

"I didn't realize it was getting to the point anyone should worry about it," said Jay Boyd, the school board president, who is white. "I just thought we need to do what's best for students -- if they're happy, let them go to Salem. Who's it hurting?"

A federal judge answered that question last week, ruling that the transfers created "racially identifiable" schools in the district. The judge also found that Tylertown's elementary schools were concentrating white students into certain classrooms, a practice some school officials have defended as necessary to avoid white flight from the county.

"We said we're going back to where it was before 1970," said Clennel Brown, who heads the local NAACP branch that complained to the Justice Department. "When the white parents say 'more comfortable,' to me it's saying 'I don't want my child to be influenced by black children.' "

Although the court ruling did not explicitly address the question of intent, Brown and others here noted that the transfers by white families gathered speed several years ago, after Tylertown, which was the official black high school under the old segregated system, got its first African American principal since desegregation in 1970. At Salem, which was the white school in the Jim Crow era, the principals have always been white.

Brown and others also noted that at Tylertown, white children and parents rarely attend graduation ceremonies, and that white students have often held a separate prom out of town. Until recently, Salem voted for separate black and white homecoming courts.

Boyd, the school board president, reluctantly acknowledged that racism probably played a role in the transfer requests. "I thought that was a thing of the past," he said. "You live and you learn."

The court order mandates that the white students who transferred to Salem, with some exceptions, must return to Tylertown next school year, a situation that has upset students and teachers. Many say that despite the school board policy, both Tylertown and Salem remain more integrated than many schools across the country. Tylertown is 76 percent black and 22 percent white; Salem is 33 percent black and 66 percent white.

Over the years, white and black students and teachers have formed friendships and in other intangible ways reaped some benefit from the very diversity that the court ruling is attempting to protect.

"I have felt we had something very special here," said Lyshon Harness, an African American who is an assistant teacher at Salem and a relative of Addreal Harness.

"Last night," added Judy Walters, an assistant teacher who is white, "I heard someone saying on TV that we're 'hillbillies from Mississippi,' saying we need to move on. But you go up north, and it's real bad."

Indeed, in a nation where housing patterns remained profoundly shaped by race, many schools could easily be categorized by the dominant racial group attending them. Walthall County got particular scrutiny because of its desegregation order and because the board adopted policies that had the effect of sharpening the racial identity of their schools.

The ruling has led some white parents in Walthall County to reconsider the systemic effects of individual choice. Roger Ginn, a white parent whose children graduated from both Tylertown and Salem, said he'd always considered the transfer issue a simple matter of student happiness, not race.

"But if all that adds up to segregated schools?" he asked, and then paused for a while. "That wouldn't be right, no."


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