CLEVELAND, Miss.—The wheels of justice have been said to turn slowly. And few 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.

Cleveland is one of 179 school districts in the country involved in active desegregation cases. Mississippi has 44 of these cases—more than any other state. But Cleveland’s case is unusual. Nationally, there’s been a trend of "resegregation" in recent years, as school districts released from court oversight revert to the racial divisions common before school desegregation was mandated by the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

But, in Cleveland, full desegregation never happened in the first place.

"You’re starting from scratch," says Wendy Scott, dean of Mississippi College School of Law and an expert in school desegregation. "There are only a handful of cases like that."

Though extreme, the still-unresolved Cleveland case highlights the remarkable persistence of school segregation, despite decades of efforts to address it. As Scott notes, this isn’t just a problem of the Deep South or small towns. "The very same issues can be found in any school district in America."

Cleveland’s epic legal case began in 1965, when a group of black parents sued to stop the district from maintaining segregated schools. In the summer of 1969, the court ordered Cleveland to cease discriminating on the basis of race and eliminate the effects of the "dual school system." Though the plaintiffs won the legal victory—and black students were allowed to enroll in the all-white Cleveland High for the first time that September—roughly 1,000 white locals gathered in the streets to show their opposition to integration, and local leaders vowed to fight it.

Cleveland Mississippi, population 12,000, has no movie theater, but two high schools, and two middle schools. (Sharon Lerner)

Fight they have: For the past half-century Cleveland has carried on with two sets of schools with wildly different demographics. While East Side and D.M. Smith are almost uniformly black, Cleveland High and Margaret Green Junior High, the historically white high school and middle school, have nearly even black-white splits. As a result, Cleveland has some of the most integrated —and some of the most segregated—public schools in the region.

Over the years, the district has, for the most part, waged its end of the legal battle with half-hearted tweaks designed to encourage white enrollment. In 1990, Cleveland created a magnet program that used enriched math and science instruction to entice white students to attend classes at a mostly black elementary school.A few years later, after that didn’t work, the district added more magnet programs, this time at East Side High. But that effort wasn't successful—at least when it came to getting whites to enroll in black schools.

Then there was the "freedom of choice" plan, which allowed students from either side of the old railroad tracks that divide the mostly black side of town from the white side to enroll in any of the town’s high schools or middle schools. More than 200 black students enrolled at Cleveland through the program, but white students uniformly passed on enrolling at East Side. And, in 2012, Cleveland introduced popular International Baccalaureate programs based on well-respected curricula at two of its all-black schools, including East Side High. These were meant to draw white students into the schools. By one measure, the program succeeded: 49 white Cleveland High students now come over to East Side to take the classes. But, still, none have enrolled at the school.

The justice department is hoping to finally bring an end to this 50-year-long string of incremental reforms. "The children and families of Cleveland have waited far too long for desegregated schools that provide equal educational opportunities for all students," Vanita Gupta, the acting assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

The federal agency’s desegregation plan calls for combining Cleveland’s two middle schools and high schools starting in the 2016-17 school year. At the same time, the school district submitted two plans. Although one calls for merging the two middle schools in the 2017-18 school year, the proposals mostly rely on the unsuccessful, decades-old approach to the problem: using magnet programs to draw white students to black schools.

Supporters of merging the schools maintain that it’s the only way to ensure equality in education, noting that Cleveland’s overwhelmingly black schools still get the short end of the stick.

"Some of our teachers, I don’t call what they’re doing teaching," says Muave Sanders, a black senior at East Side High, who is a plaintiff in the case against the district.

Sanders didn’t receive preparation for the ACT test. (East Side now offers two ACT preparation workshops, according to Jamie Jacks, a lawyer for the district.*) East Side students didn't even science textbooks to bring home at night; there aren’t enough to go around. They don’t have lockers, either. Sanders and his classmates carry their books around in their backpacks all day. Though he is a strong and athletic, "it gets heavy," says Sanders.

A mile away, students at the racially mixed Cleveland High have these basics, even though the school receives more than $3,000 less per student each year than East Side does, according to the school district. And Cleveland has some amenities East Side does not, including a softball field and a weight-room "that makes ours look like a baby weight room," as Sanders puts it. An investigator hired by the Justice Department in 2009 found that the quality of Cleveland’s all black—or mostly black—schools was "not comparable to [the quality at] those with majority white enrollments," noting lighting that failed to meet minimum standards and buildings that were of "substantially poorer quality."

* * *

Despite the glaring inequities, members of both the town’s black and white communities remain divided over the prospect of change.

Part of the resistance stems from a fondness for the current incarnation of Cleveland High. "It’s a big eclectic mix where everyone has a spot," parent Margaret Swartzfager says of the school. Swartzfager, who is white, has four children in Cleveland public schools, including a 15-year-old daughter who goes to Cleveland High. While Swartzfager says her children would likely remain in public schools if the district has to merge them, other families would likely leave the public system.

Simply combining both high schools would result in a student body that’s about 30 percent white, which would push the racial balance past a tipping point of comfort for many white families who "don’t want to be in a small minority," says Jim Tims, a former school board member.

"If they feel threatened or for some reason race bothers them, then they have an option and they’re going to leave the schools," says Tims. There are mostly-white private schools nearby, such as the local Presbyterian Day School, which was founded in 1965, and Bayou Academy, founded the year before. As Tims sees it, "The question is: Do you want to have ‘integration’? Or do you want to have white flight?"

For the African American families who feel East Side has been stigmatized and under-resourced, that’s an easy question. "To integrate these schools is the law," says Claude Boddie, 76, whose five children went to Cleveland public schools. "My thing is the law part of it."

Though the district has used concern about white flight to argue against consolidating the schools in court, Jamie Jacks, a lawyer for the school district, also cited greater opportunity for participation in extracurricular activities—like band and student government—as an advantage of maintaining two high schools. With fewer schools, fewer spots would be available in these programs.

Some black families do indeed choose East Side because they think their children will have a greater shot of making a club or a team there. Tonya Short, whose son is a ninth grader at East Side, says she sent him there because of his love for baseball; she feared that, as a black student, he wouldn’t be allowed to play or excel in the sport at the racially mixed school. "In the history of that program, they only have one or two blacks on the senior team," says Short. "He’s a good student but we didn’t want to take the sports away from him."

Nevertheless, Short supports the idea of consolidating the schools. "I’d like to see each child have an equal opportunity to participate instead of being selected based on color or who their parents may be," she says. "I think that could happen if the schools were combined."

The Sanders Family (Sharon Lerner)

But Tims, the former school board member, said he wished those urging school consolidation would "just leave us alone. Maybe that’s because I’m a sentimental fool, but I love Cleveland High School and I don’t want it to go away." And Maurice Lucas, president of the Cleveland School Board, who is black, testified that he thought a majority of black East Side alums would also object to consolidation out of loyalty to their alma mater.

Sanders’ parents, Mack and Lenden, who both graduated from East Side, don’t agree with that interpretation. They sent their children to East Side not because they feel it’s a better school—they don’t—but because they fear their children won’t be treated fairly at Cleveland High. Lenden Sanders believes that Muave, who was voted "Mr. East Side High" at the last homecoming and is likely to be East Side’s valedictorian this year, wouldn’t have a shot at that distinction at Cleveland High "no matter how good his grades are." Cleveland High has never had a black valedictorian.

Still, Lenden Sanders is dubious anything will change soon and was not at all surprised by the inability of the school district and the feds to agree on a desegregation plan. "The people over there, they’re not ready for a change," she says.

Maybe it’s because of his youth, but Muave Sanders is still optimistic, despite the lack of progress. "I thought it would happen before I got to high school," said the senior, who is planning to attend the University of Southern Mississippi. Despite this latest delay, Sanders is confident that one day all students will be together in a single high school in Cleveland. And when that true integration happens, he believes it will help students, whatever their color.

"Cooperating with other races is something you have to do when you get in the real world and go to work, he reasons. "So why not do that in high school?"


* This article previously stated that no students at East Side High receive preparation for the ACT. We regret the error.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.