Educational segregation in Sunflower County, Mississippi
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There has been a long history of educational segregation in Sunflower County, Mississippi.
African Americans have faced tense political and social climates throughout history. A group around civil rights worker Charles McLaurin stated that Sunflower County was "the worst county in the worst state" concerning racial discrimination. In 1960 approximately two-thirds of the population in Sunflower County was black, and the average income of African Americans in Sunflower County was lower than the federal poverty line.
J. Todd Moye, author of Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945-1986, said "the segregated school system in Mississippi intentionally kept African American separate, ignorant, and afraid." Moye said that locals had resentment towards the black principals and teachers in the black schools, "in some cases for very legitimate reasons". The black schools were in session during the hottest periods of each year, while white schools were closed, schools forced black students to pick cotton, and schools pressed parents to engage in fundraisers.
Black children in Sunflower County did not have the opportunity to go to school because they had to work in the fields. When they were able to go, their schooling was squeezed in between the cultivation of crops. African American children were not allowed to have school buses or adequate supplies. Many children did not go to school because it was too far to walk or it would be too cold in the winter to walk all the way from their family's farm. Black students and their families also had to pay several dollars for heating in the winter. Sunflower County estimated that there were 20,473 African Americans between the ages of six through twenty-one; however only 7,709 of them were enrolled in schools. When vehicles were finally provided to the black schools, they were hand-me-down school buses from the white schools, in unsafe condition.
The University of Mississippi’s Bureau of Education Research attempted to test black schoolchildren, but there were too few desks and the students had no knowledge of how to take a standardized test. The Bureau of Education found that to make the minimum improvements to the black schools, Sunflower County would have needed to spend $2,493,745; the county refused to spend the money. When Gov. Hugh White visited Indianola in 1953, he stated that finding enough money to support the two separate school systems was the biggest financial problem of his administration.
One of the largest proponents for desegregation in the Sunflower school systems was Mae Bertha Carter. Mae Bertha Carter dreamed of leaving the farm after her children were educated. Mae Bertha Carter knew first-hand the problems of segregated schools. Despite the fact that Carter enjoyed learning, she noticed from an early age that her teachers were unable to satisfy her intellectual curiosity. She later learned that the teachers in her school often had only a middle school-level education. Carter also noticed the great discrepancies between the two school systems in Drew, and brought attention to desegregating the schools. “If the blacks hadn’t fought they would still be slaves today. Somebody had to step up and say no we are not taking this anymore.”
In early 1965, to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and continue receiving federal funds, the Drew school district submitted a “freedom of choice” plan to the federal government. This plan satisfied all legal requirements of the time; however, the Drew school board knew that most black families would not choose to place their children into the white school system. However, Mae Bertha Carter saw the opportunity for her children to have a better education and filled out the paperwork for her children to enroll at the white school system in Drew. It was later discovered the Carter family was the only black family to do so.
However, even when schools began to integrate (at first on a "choice" basis), racial problems still remained. The Carter children experienced problems[clarification needed] in the all-white Drew high school. They have recollected that their times at Drew High School were unpleasant. White children often refused to talk or even sit near them. When a white child did choose to play with one of the Carter children, a school official would always tell the child to not to associate themselves with the Carters. The Carter children often decided to eat together outside all year in order to avoid the jeers of their classmates. However, the Carter children were aware of what they were doing. The next year, a black school teacher enrolled her son into the white school system. Eventually, more and more black students decided to integrate into the Drew schools.
During this time, two court cases began to change segregation in schools across the nation. The Supreme Court ruled in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) that a similar "freedom of choice" scheme in Virginia was unconstitutional. In Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969), the Supreme Court ruled that integration in schools had to be accomplished immediately. In addition, U.S. district judge William Keady later[when?] ordered the Indianola School District to fully integrate the public schools.
However, white parents found a way to disassociate their children from the African American Drew students by establishing private schools.
De facto resegregation
Currently in Drew, public education is predominately black and private education is predominately white. The majority of white parents rejected desegregation in schools, and consequently established private white schools, named “segregation academies” by critics. Several "segregation academies" were established in Sunflower County, including Indianola Academy and North Sunflower Academy. The new private schools had an immediate effect on the remaining public schools.
White teachers left to work at the private schools, which left few experienced teachers in the public schools. There were also fewer resources for students in the public school systems. Textbooks that were left were beyond repair, yet the public schools were unable to find the funds to replace them. There were also few advanced courses to teach the public school students college-level material. Student life in the public schools also changed dramatically. Proms and dances were canceled altogether in order to prevent the remaining white students in the public schools from associating with the black students, which only fueled further racial tension in the community. However, one of the most damaging effects of this move was on the school board. Prominent local community leaders left and the public school system collapsed.
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- Curry, Constance (1995). Silver Rights. Chapel Hill: Algonquin of Chapel Hill.
- Moye, J. Todd (2004). Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-5561-4.
- Myers-Asch, Christopher (2008). The Senator and the Sharecropper. New York: New Press. ISBN 978-1-59558-332-1.
- Dann, Jim (2013). Challenging the Mississippi Firebombers, Memories of Mississippi 1964-65. Montréal, Québec: Baraka Books. ISBN 978-1-926824-87-1.