A Mississippi school district has dropped its challenge to the court-ordered desegregation of its middle and high schools, ending a 50-year legal battle over the segregation of black and white students.
The Cleveland School District’s board announced Monday that it had reached a settlement with the Justice Department and private plaintiffs in the long-running case.
Jamie Jacks, a lawyer for the school board, said board members voted unanimously to drop their challenge to offer the community clarity about the future. They felt “moving forward with a solid plan would serve the District, its students, faculty, parents and the community best in the long run,” Jacks said.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zakiya Summers-Harlee, director of communications and advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, welcomed the move. “It’s taken way too long … but we’re looking forward to the full desegregation of these schools, which will take away the idea that if you’re from one side of the tracks, you’re less than those from the other,” she said.
Cleveland is a town of 12,000 people and home to two high schools: one on the historically white side of town, whose students are evenly split between black and white students; and the other a mile away on the historically black side of town, with a student population that is almost exclusively black. There are two middle schools with similar racial breakdowns.
In May, a federal judge found that Cleveland was operating an illegal dual system for its black and white children, failing after decades to reach the “greatest degree of desegregation possible.”
The decision drew national attention and was followed days later by a federal government report on the rise of segregation in U.S. public schools.
The judge ordered the school district to consolidate its two high schools into one that would be approximately two-thirds black and one-third white. The two middle schools would also be consolidated into one. Both of the new schools were to open in fall 2017.
The order drew cheers from some in Cleveland, who said children would have access to more opportunities in one larger school. But for others, including black and white alumni of both high schools, consolidation was synonymous with loss — loss of tradition and identity associated with their alma maters.
The school district argued that its open-enrollment policy — which allowed families to choose where to send their children — had more successfully integrated schools than the involuntary measures common across the South over the past half-century. The school board vowed to fight the ruling and appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
But on Monday, the board announced that it had reversed course and would consolidate its schools. The Class of 2017 will be the last to graduate from East Side and Cleveland high schools, and this will be the last year that the Trojans face off against the Wildcats at town sporting events. Starting next school year, every high school student in town will enroll at Cleveland Central High, where they will have a new mascot: a wolf.