Legislative actions last week continue the war against Black education

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The proposal of a Senate bill to close three public universities and the House vote on a bill that would kill the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP) both are detrimental threats to Black education. They both reflect what has been a history of white leaders being dead set on hindering Black education. 

Both legislative actions last week are also in line with the law passed last year outlawing the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s public schools and colleges.

Mississippi’s attacks, like those in many other states, have over time been aimed at: (1) the educational institutions in existence; (2) the curricula being taught; (3) the teachers who are permitted to teach; and (4) the students admitted to the education institutions. The attacks have been so massive and so intertwined until it is difficult to know with which entity to begin, but begin we shall.


We begin with the institutions themselves. For starters, it should be understood that during the period in which African people were enslaved in Mississippi, enslaved people were not permitted to be taught to read and write. There were no Black institutions, no Black curriculum, and no Black teachers or students. 

Further, ever since Rust College (1866) and Tougaloo College (1869) were established for Black students, they have faced opposition from most white officials and many white citizens. 

There were no public colleges in the state until Black leaders undertook the establishment of Alcorn in 1871, despite the fact that they were the majority population and that the University of Mississippi had been existence since 1844. Over the next 69 years the state established four other white colleges before it assumed control of its next Black college, Jackson State College, in 1940. Mississippi Vocational College was established in 1950, as some wealthy plantation owners supported the idea of having a college nearby that would enable its students to continue working for them as school students often did in the afternoons and summers.

In general, however, the state has not been enthused about the idea of Black colleges because it would have less control over the day-to-day interactions on the curricula by the students and teachers on those campuses. Black colleges and universities have consistently produced the overwhelming majority of Black professionals, officials, and civil rights leaders in America, which white officials dislike. 

White opposition for that reason also helps explain the deliberate underfunding of the Black institutions, which led to the filing of Ayers vs. Waller in 1975 and the $257.8 million short-changing of Alcorn over its life-time. It even explains the state’s efforts to close Black colleges, as undertook against Campbell College in the early 1960s, against Tougaloo throughout the 1960s, and has done regarding Mississippi Valley State University several times since the 1970s under Commissioner W. Ray Cleere.


Paralleling the colleges and universities, there were no public schools available for Black students until Black State Superintendent Thomas Cardozo was able to raise money for them in the mid-1870s. Black and white allies had included provisions for public schools in the 1868 Mississippi Constitution, but it had not been implemented due to a lack of funds. Cardozo’s efforts led to the establishment of a scattering of public schools before ex-Confederates used the 1890 Constitution to demand separate but equal schooling for Black and white children, resulting in the same type of discrepant funding to which we referred regarding the colleges.

These segregated schools persisted across the state from that point until the gradual change in the 1960s and the total change in 1970, following the Alexander vs. Holmes County decision (1969). In keeping with the idea of opposing Black institutions, however, many Black schools were closed, downsized, or placed under white administrators following the court-ordered de-segregation push. 

Following that pattern, Greenville’s Coleman High School, which was arguably the premier Black high school in the state, was reduced to a junior high school; Jackson’s Brinkley High School, which had been opened less than 10 years, was reduced to a junior high school; and Mound Bayou High School, the oldest Black high school in Bolivar County, was eventually closed and its students bused to Shelby. The fall-out was the same across the state and is still manifest in public school districts, such as Jackson Public Schools and Madison County Schools.


In order to gain an even better understanding of the effort against Black education, it is important to look at curriculum. Today, one can talk about the conservative attacks on curriculum under the guise of “critical race theory.” Other things to keep in mind, however, include the fact that the state department of education has long decided the curriculum and set of approved textbooks to be used by the public schools. 

For an example, not only were history, social studies, and literature courses screened for their content, there have been reported instances wherein Black schools have not been permitted to offer such college preparatory courses as physics, calculus, and Latin.

 At the university level, the college board continues to have the power to approve the degree programs that each institution can offer. That is the reason why Jackson Sate University has never been permitted to establish a law school. It took more than 10 years of trying before it could offer programs in urban studies. Opposition from the college board is why Mississippi Valley State University has not been permitted to have an aviation program. It is why Alcorn has been held back in terms of its agricultural research and programs.

Whether it is at the high school or college level, if one can determine what is in the curriculum, then he/she can determine the limits of students’ academic development. This is also one of the reasons why most southern states were more open to the idea of Black agricultural and industrial colleges than they were to liberal arts colleges. Furthermore, these states “knew” that they could control what was taught at the Black agricultural colleges, compared to what was taught at the white agricultural colleges.


Once Black teachers demanded equal compensation as white teachers and as they were placed in positions to teach white children, the state became more concerned about who was “certified” to teach in its schools and colleges. Indeed, it led to a war on Black teachers. 

Starting in the 1960s, many Black teachers lost their jobs based upon racism, even though in many cases they had more impressive credentials than their white counterparts. Because of segregation, many Black teachers had to attend graduate schools in places like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Massachusetts, and California while many white teachers had only gone to Delta State, the University of Southern Mississippi, or Mississippi colleges. 

Additionally, as the public schools were de-segregated, there were reported efforts to find grounds for firing Black teachers, especially Black male teachers, based upon a charge of “conduct unbecoming of a teacher.” Many other teachers were demoted or given assignments that were more difficult or less desirable. 

Simultaneously, many school districts began using the Graduate Records Examination as a criterion for hiring. This was followed by use of the National Teachers Examination. Then came the Mississippi Teacher Assessment Instrument; and the PRAXIS. In each case, the state was seeking to find ways and means to reduce the number of Black teachers almost by using any means that was necessary. 

It was as if there was a surplus of Black teachers. Because there had long been more Black children than white children in the state, there were more Black teachers than white ones. Finally, it is fair to say that the “deliberate” depression of teachers’ salaries has been somewhat of an attempt to “drive out” some of the surplus of Black teachers. 

In the matter of teacher selection and retention, one should not lose sight of the fact that in the effort against Black education, eliminating and/or reducing Black teachers is key. That has been especially the case based upon a fear that Black teachers would be more liberal-minded and dedicated to producing future Black professionals and leaders.


Then we come to the final element or component, which is the ultimate goal, reducing the number of Black youths who enter into and graduate from public schools and institutions of higher learning. It is not difficult to realize that, like the idea of authorizing so-called public charter schools, the legislative killing of MAEP will result in fewer Black students being able to graduate from the state’s public schools.

 In the early years, not many Black students graduated from high school or college because there were not significant opportunities for middle-income jobs. Often young people could earn as much by going directly to work as those who had remained in high school or even gone to college. 

Then there was the factor of age. Many Black students were late in graduating because they could only go to school several months a year, working much of the rest of the time to help the family pay its bills and earn a living. Obviously, the larger, white power structure had created and helped to maintain such an environment. 

The matter of college was a special problem since most families did not have “extra” money for college. 

Then, too, there was the matter of gaining entrance. As the movement toward de-segregation accelerated, standardized test scores became more important for college entrance. While almost no Black students could get into the white colleges, many were not able to get into the Black colleges. A significant number of students delayed such an endeavor and went to Alcorn, JSU, and MVSU as veterans, when they had more money and the entrance exams were not required. 

In addition to the matter of the entrance examinations, today, the problem of finances has reared its head even more. For the past 20 years, Mississippi has permitted its universities to continue raising their tuition and fees to such an extent that they became unaffordable for thousands of Black students. (More on that score may have been written about Tougaloo students, but it plagues those at the public colleges as well.) As this continues to happen, the percentage of Black students is likely to decline even more. 

Meanwhile, the refusal to fund the universities more generously, including the legislative refusal to eliminate tuition for community college attendance, means that the war against Black education continues. 


We realize that this article covers a number of different topics showing the multi-faceted enormity of the problem. 

The above referenced actions of the Mississippi legislature last week reflect and continue the history of the war against Black education. It is not likely to end anytime soon. While this story speaks of Mississippi here and now, its implications are not bound by this time or place. 

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Legislative actions last week continue the war against Black education

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
March 18, 2024