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A School District That Was Never Desegregated

Sharon Lerner
The Atlantic

The wheels of justice have been said to turn slowly. Andfew things move quickly here in Cleveland, Mississippi, a town of 12,000 people with no movie theater and a quaint commercial district that’s shuttered on Sunday. But when a deadline on a school desegregation suit—originally filed in 1965—came and went last month with opposing sides still unable to agree on a resolution, some locals admitted frustration.

"If you fight for something for 50-some-odd years and it don’t work out? Good gravy, that’s a long time," said Leroy Byars, 67, who is known around town simply as "Coach." Coach led East Side High School’s football team, the Trojans, from 1972 to 1987 and served as the school’s principal from 1988 to 1997. Back then, East Side High was all black—as it had been back when it was called Cleveland Colored Consolidated High and officially served only black students.

The problem, as the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice sees it, is that East Side High is still virtually all black: 359 of 360 students are African American. The racial mix is pretty much the same at D. M. Smith Junior High School, one of the two middle schools in this Delta town. In June, a federal judge asked the school district and the justice department to try to come up with a joint plan to desegregate the district’s schools. But the two sides were unable to agree by the January deadline and, late last month, unveiled separate visions for Cleveland. This spring, a federal judge will likely decide how the district should move forward—more than 40 years after most of the country desegregated public schools.