A Mississippi School District Is Finally Getting Desegregated

A settlement will merge the district’s historically black and white schools.

A sign reading "East Side High School: Top 500 High Schools in the U.S." sits outside a brick school building.
East Side High School in Cleveland, Mississippi (Rogelio V. Solis / AP)

School segregation did not end in 1954 with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. For the past 52 years, the Cleveland, Mississippi, school district has faced ongoing litigation in response to its racially divided high schools and middle schools. After decades of legal battles and failed integration initiatives, a settlement was finalized Monday, creating a single high school on the historically white Cleveland High campus and a single middle school on the historically black East Side High campus.

Prior to Monday’s ruling, Cleveland was one of many nationwide districts suffering from the remnants of deep-seated segregation in schools. As of 2015, nearly 180 U.S. school districts were involved in active desegregation cases, 44 of them in Mississippi.

The first real attempt to integrate Cleveland’s schools occurred in 1969, exactly 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education, when a federal judge issued a desegregation order. Rather than helping to integrate the district’s schools, the judge created new attendance zones that fell along racial lines.

Next came a series of magnet programs, which largely failed to attract white students to the district’s historically black schools, along with a “freedom of choice” plan, which permitted students throughout the district to enroll in any of Cleveland’s high schools or middle schools. The measure helped to diversify the district’s historically white schools, but was again unsuccessful at integrating predominantly black schools like East Side High. Currently, all but two of East Side High’s 377 students are black.

In recent years, negotiations between Cleveland’s school district and the U.S. Justice Department failed to arrive at a plan for integration.

It wasn’t until January that an agreement was finally reached. At a meeting on January 30, the Cleveland school board announced it had accepted a settlement with private plaintiffs and the Department of Justice. With Monday’s final confirmation in place, the merging of Cleveland’s high schools and middle schools can now begin.

Already, officials have begun to hire principals and brainstorm new names, mascots, and colors for the integrated schools. In a district riddled by racial divides, these gestures will be key to starting anew.