Eight years ago a federal appellate court approved a desegregation plan for rural Amite County in southwestern Mississippi that attempted to overcome white parent's fears of "race-mixing" by setting up separate schools for boys and girls.
Now the schools are nearly all black despite the segregation-by sex order, and most of the black students are boycotting classes to force the county school board to seek court action lifting the order.
One of the members of the three judge panel that approved the plan in 1969 was Griffin B. Bell, who was then a member of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and is now Attornery General of the United States.
As Bell recalls it, according to an aide, the segregation-by-sex plan was drafted by the school board and was accepted by the court with the consent of black plaintiffs. This was s before sex segregation in public schools was outlawed by federal law, the aide said.
A Justice Department request for review fof the case has been pending since before Bell left the court last year, but no action has been taken. John Jackson, attorney for the Amite County NAACP, said last week he intends to ask the court to rescind the sex segregation order and restore coeducation to the schools.
Jackson said the boycott, which began Aug. 26 and, involved all but about 450 of the county's 2,600 students, as of Friday, will continue until the school board seeks to overturn the order.
Three of the four board members said during a board meeting with black parents. Thursday night that they were satisfied with the present arrangement and agreed to take no action.
T"We have no authority to change that court order," Board President Bernard Dunaway was quoted by the Associated Press as saying. "They'll have to rule otherwise before we'll change."
According to Robert Wilson Jr., the one black member of the school board, the plan was drafted in 1969 to "prevent black males and white females from having any contact" in the classrooms.
Asked Thursday night why sex segregation was not in effect before 1969, Dunaway said, "We didn't have intergration then. We had one school for whites and one school for coloreds, that's why."
A lawyer involved in the case said Amite County was one of few Mississippi school districts at the time that came up with any kind of voluntary plan. "School district after school district had refused to come up with a plan, and here was one that did so," he said. "I think the court took a strictly pragmatic approach . . . to approve the plan and see if it would keep whites in the (school) system."
In this, it only partly succeeded over the next eight years. The public schools - two for boys and two for girls - are between 80 and 90 per cent black. About 430 whites were attending classes in the public schools last week, along with about 40 blacks, while two private academies in the area have a combined enrollment of 600 white students.