One late-summer afternoon in 1994, Renee Moore—an English teacher at the nearly all-black East Side High School in Cleveland, Mississippi—received a phone call. On the other line was a friend: “Renee, you need to get over here right away,” she said in a hushed tone. “We are throwing away books.”
Moore’s friend worked at Cleveland High, a historically white school with a majority-white teaching staff, located about a mile away from East Side High. Teachers there had just received brand-new textbooks, Moore’s friend explained, and were getting rid of the old ones. Even though the discarded texts were published only four years earlier, they no longer aligned with the latest state standards. Since East Side High teachers, who were majority black, were still working with English textbooks published in the ’70s and ’80s, Moore got in her car, and 15 minutes later was loading the trunk with what she had found in the trash bins.
Cleveland—a small, rural town of about 12,000 residents in the Mississippi Delta—is divided by railroad tracks that separate east from west and its black residents from its white ones. Back in 1994, when Moore was in her fourth year of teaching, the city was embroiled in a high-profile school-desegregation court case—one that began in 1965 and wasn’t resolved until 2017. In the mid-1990s, the district implemented a “freedom of choice” plan, arguing that it would achieve full integration. The plan included a variety of magnet programs, with exclusive offerings at East Side High, such as AP calculus and trigonometry. Two decades later, none of the choice-based integration attempts worked. By 2014, 48 students from Cleveland High were busing to East Side High to take some classes, but no white students enrolled there full-time—resulting in a federal ruling that ordered both high schools to consolidate into one.