How to Prove: The Playbook for Keeping Schools Segregated

Most Americans think of opposition to school integration as something that happened in the South, with fire hoses and dogs and screaming white mothers. But the real work of maintaining segregation—in defiance, first, of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and second, of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—happened with less fanfare.

As I reported the history of the communities my family and I are from, in Michigan, I realized that the North was just as resistant to integration as the South. The way that several school districts in Michigan kept schools segregated mirrored the ways the public school district in Hattiesburg, Mississsippi had done the same thing. Close enough, in fact, that officials might as well have been working from the same playbook.


The School Segregation Playbook

  • 1. Stalling
  • 2. Freedom of Choice
  • 3. Magnet Schools
  • 4. Neighborhood Schools
  • 5. Forced Busing
  • 6. Gifted and Talented Programs

Step 1: Stalling

Step 2: Freedom of Choice

South

September 2, 1965: “26 Negroes Choose to Integrate Here”

The Hattiesburg American reports that “Superintendent Blair said, “for the first time in the school system’s history, Negroes and whites will attend the same schools under the Federal Health, Eduction, and Welfare Department’s mandate to integrate,” using the “freedom of choice” compliance plan that gave Black parents an option to enroll their child at a previously all-white school. In the first year, this plan was only available for grades 1-4. 

North

February 26, 1975: “Ferndale Plan Rejected,”

Lansing State Journal reports all four plans submitted by the Ferndale School Board for voluntary desegregation of the all-Black elementary school were rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice. The letter rejecting the plans says, “While we do not reject ‘freedom-of-choice’ or voluntary plans as inadequate on their face, our experience in circumstances similar to Ferndale has been that such plans do not work.”

Step 3: Magnet Schools

North

September 4, 1975: “Ferndale Pulls Whites to Black School”

Detroit Free Press reports that a magnet “open classroom” magnet program was started at Grant Elementary, as the “Ferndale board…was looking for a way out of its battle with HEW over Grant Elementary.”

South

August 10, 1986: “Back to School, Hattiesburg Schools Read for a New Year”

The Hattiesburg American reports that “the first phase of the new district desegregation plan will be implemented this fall” with the creation of two learning centers “as ordered by  U.S. District Judge Tom Lee Oct.21, 1985. Although Judge Lee’s decision has been appealed to the U.S. Fish Circuit Court, the district is required to go forward with planning and implementation of the desegregation plan.” Two magnet schools are to open in fall 1987.  School superintendent Walker told the paper, “Our desegregation plan will not diminish in any way the quality of our neighborhood schools but will offer parents and students enhanced educational opportunities through providing choices and alternatives to attending neighborhood schools.”

Step 4: Neighborhood Schools Argument

North

January 26, 1975: “State Fights U.S. Plan To Deny $90 Million”

Detroit Free Press reports on the federal funding being withheld from Ferndale  schools as the district continued to maintain “that Grant [the all-Black school in the district] is not purposely segregated, but is all black only because it is in an all-black neighborhood.”

South

November 15, 1983: “Spinks: More Help Needed from Legislature”

The Hattiesburg American reports that “when asked about racial segregation on the elementary level in Hattiesburg due to the existence of neighborhood schools, [then-] superintendent Spinks said he did not think that Hattiesburg is “ready” for additional desegregation at the elementary level, although the junior and senior highs are desegregated. “I don’t think that there has been enough time and enough change (for additional desegregation efforts to succeed), “ Spinks said. “I don’t think change will be brought about voluntarily.”

Step 5: Forced Busing

South

January 1, 1972: U.S. Senator James O. Eastland Address in Hattiesburg, Mississippi

“We knew at the outset for example that busing children in school as a means of balancing the races would not work…You take the state of Michigan. At one time the entire delegation was bitterly opposed to everything that we stood for and today aside from one senator and three congressmen that entire delegation has switched around in its position.”

March 27, 1998: “New Hattiesburg School OK’d” from the Hattiesburg American

Reports the district’s end to busing and return to neighborhood schools after “the Hattiesburg school district was granted unitary status in October 1997, meaning the district no longer discriminated on the basis of race. This was followed by a racially balanced survey of Hattiesburg parents to see if they would support the neighborhood schools concept. 84% of white parents favored the concept, even if those schools would be racially imbalanced. 54% of the black parents favored it, even at the risk of racial imbalance.”

North

September 8th, 1971: “Busing Makes Quiet Debut, Pontiac Schools Half Empty,” “Pontiac Parents Open Enrollment for ‘Freedom Schools,’ “Parents Fret, but Kids Jump Right In,” and “14 Arrested in Day of Protests”

The Detroit Free Press reports that most of the absentee students were white, as “leaders of a white parents’ group had urged that children be kept home.” There were three bomb threats reported, “five women chained themselves to the bus-yard gates in an attempt to keep it from being opened and had to be cut loose by the police,” and “anti-busing leader Mrs. Irene McCabe and about 50 women followers went to [School Superintendent] Whitmer’s office, where Mrs. McCabe presented the superintendent with a three-foot model of a school bus. Inside the bus, which was labeled “[Justice] Damon Keith Integration Special,” were two brown and white guinea pigs. The anti-busing faction said this symbolized the use of their children as “guinea pigs” in busing to achieve integration.”

October 27, 1971: “Justices Rebuff Pontiac on Busing”

The New York Times reports that the Supreme Court declined to “review a Federal court order for school busing that has touched off violence and boycotts in Pontiac, Mich.” This was the first appeal from a Northern school after Brown v. Board of Education.

October 9, 1980: “Ferndale Busing Will Begin Jan. 5 for 350 Students”

Detroit Free Press reports that “after 12 years of court battles…Ferndale schools will begin busing more than 350 elementary school students beginning Jan. 5 under a desegregation plan approved Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Horace Gilmore”

Step 6: Gifted and Talented Programs

North

1976: “Gifted education in America has a race problem. Can it be fixed?

South

1986: Proposal for a “Gifted and Talented” program in Hattiesburg

The proposed program would be scheduled as “a pull-out program whereby students leave their basic classroom program to participate in the gifted and talented program.” This was included in Hattiesburg’s integration case, Civil Case #4706.

2001-2015: For data on demographics of Hattiesburg’s gifted and talented program, see our Mississippi Public Schools and Race Data Set

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