On May 13, a federal judge agreed to this plan despite considerable opposition from school and city officials, who insist on keeping the schools bifurcated. This, more than 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate-but-equal” schools were unconstitutional.
Wrote U.S. District Court Judge Debra M. Brown in her ruling:
… In the decades since this pronouncement, the District has failed to meet this obligation as it concerns the high schools and middle schools in Cleveland, Mississippi. This failure, whether born of good faith, bad faith, or some combination of the two, has placed Cleveland in the unenviable position of operating under a desegregation order long after schools in bastions of segregation like Boston, Jackson, and Mobile have been declared unitary. Moreimportant, and of far greater harm, the delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education. Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the District to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden.
The order applies to two middle schools, including D. M. Smith, which is located east of the tracks and has maintained a 99 percent black student population since at least 2012. It also applies to the city’s two high schools—including East Side High School, named for its location, and which has also maintained a 99 percent black student population over the past few years.
The other two west-side schools, Margaret Green Middle School and Cleveland High School, were originally predominantly white schools, but today maintain a somewhat even racial split (though white student enrollment has been declining in both). Those schools have been able to achieve better integration results by adding a mix of magnet and college-prep programs, all features of prior court-ordered desegregation plans and consent decrees.
It’s not that those programs didn’t work, it’s that they worked in just one direction. Meaning, they enabled black students to integrate into the white west-side schools, but were ineffective in integrating white students into the predominantly black schools. Meanwhile, those east-side “black” schools earned reputations for inferior accommodations. Sharon Lerner offered some details on these facilities in an article that ran in The Atlantic last year, for which she interviewed Mauve Sanders, a then-East Side High student whose family is a plaintiff in the court case Judge Brown just decided. Wrote Lerner:
East Side students didn't even get 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."
Cleveland’s two high schools do literally sit a mile from each other, on either side of the railroad track. Collectively, they hold about a thousand students, which isn’t enough to overburden the high school system if combined into one, argued the Justice Department in its case against Cleveland. However, city leaders testified that “people in Cleveland are nervous, fearful, and resentful,” about the consolidation plan.