Desegregation or Integration?Not just semantics when it comes to the education of Black children in the public schools

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On October 23, 1969, in the case of Alexander vs. Holmes County, the state of Mississippi was ordered to immediately desegregate all of its public schools. This caused a great deal of consternation, but it was only a logical extension of the Brown vs. Board of Education which had occurred 15 years earlier. Many will recall that this was when the Supreme Court declared segregation in the public schools to be unconstitutional because, by being separate, they were inherently unequal, violating the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the interim between 1954 and 1969, there had been spats of racial desegregation in the public schools around the state. Even in places as small, rural and isolated as Rosedale, there was some school desegregation. Professor Morgan Brown had been fired from the teaching position that he had held for several decades after he enrolled two of his children in what was, at the time, the “white” high school. School district officials had vowed that there would be no “race mixing” in their schools. All across the state, teachers and students were punished in various ways for stepping out of line. In the state capital of Jackson, for example, one Black student who was a part of that city’s early desegregation effort testified that in one of his classes where he was the only Black student, after painting a horrible picture of how inferior the enslaved Africans had been, the white teacher then stated to the class that there was one of them in the class, at which time the Black student had wished that he could have disappeared. The slow pace and such terrible illustrations had gone on for 15 years after the Brown decision. Mississippi was doing just as other Jim Crow states in this matter.

Alexander vs. Holmes County, by speeding up the implementation of the decision announced in Brown vs. Board of Education, caused many liberal-to-progressive white people to applaud the step as an advancement in the area of civil rights. Leaders of many civil rights organizations had the same feeling. Therefore, despite the ugly and often violent reactions of die-hard segregationists in places like Little Rock, Arkansas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Clinton, Tennessee; Sturgis, Kentucky; and the Jackson and Rosedale examples above, there was strong support from Black people for the school desegregation movement.

Then, by the early 1980s, reports began showing that in many places white parents had abandoned the public schools, sending their children to private segregated schools; that many states were creating special programs and providing less funding for schools and districts that were predominately Black; that many Black teachers and administrators were being removed from the public schools; that Black children were being unjustly treated in or pushed out of the public schools; that textbooks and other teaching materials often were racially biased, stereotypical or insensitive; and that in many ways the schools were being re-segregated rather than integrated. 

It is at that point that an opposing voice that had often been silent, or at least muted, became more prominent. Not just Black Power advocates but many otherwise average Black citizens began talking about the evils that were characterizing public school desegregation. What they began seeing very clearly was that the public schools were often being poorly desegregated and never integrated.

In the early days of the struggle, many Black people had come to realize that schools which served white students were more adequately funded than those serving Black students. They realized that as long as the schools were physically separate it would be easier to implement funding programs that were unequal. Their argument was, therefore, that the system of public schools must be restructured so that there was no longer one for Blacks and one for whites.

The image in the minds of such advocates was one wherein all of the children would be exposed to the same curriculum, which would be non-racial; that they would be under the tutelage of individuals who were dedicated to the education of all of the children; that they would be under the authority of administrators and school boards who were even-handed in their operation. In short, what they envisioned was a system of integrated public schools.

The policy of having segregated public schools had been placed in the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. It had been dutifully followed down through the years. As that practice enabled the schools for Black and white children to be not only separate but unequal, Black proponents for equal funding saw desegregation as a means of ending that condition. The real difference between desegregation and integration, however, did not manifest itself to any appreciable degree. 

By the time they had experienced several decades of desegregated schooling under individuals who were still racially biased, however, many Black people had had enough. They woke up to what many elderly Black people had feared, and that is, that their children would receive the wrath, the abuse, and the neglect of most white teachers and administrators around the state; that under the system of desegregation many of the Black children would not receive the education that they deserve.

Based upon such fears, it became clear that what they had wanted – true equal school facilities, equal equipment and materials, and equal funding for all school children – was not forthcoming. Had there been even separate but truly equal educational conditions, competent and loving Black teachers could have helped Black children achieve at their maximum. Integration would have been an added bonus. Desegregation, however, by definition and as it has been implemented, had been only tokenism at best. It had enabled cruelty, at its worst.

In light of the bad practices following the Alexander vs. Holmes County decision, Black people have been and are still confronted with the problem of how to pursue the best education for their children. Desegregation has been woefully inadequate; integration has not been given a chance. As Black people grapple with the problem, it should remain crystal clear that desegregation and integration are more than a matter of semantics. Resolving the matter can go a long way in providing for the intellectual survival of the younger generations of African American people, especially those in Mississippi.

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Desegregation or Integration?Not just semantics when it comes to the education of Black children in the public schools

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
October 30, 2022