Decision’s full effects not felt in Vicksburg until ’70s

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 17, 2004

And a separate legislative plan to raise the per-pupil funding floor for all schools, called the minimum-foundation program, was also put in place.

“In spite of the motivation for the laws, much of the legislation enacted during those extraordinary sessions had beneficial impact on the schools in the long term,” Sansing wrote.

Organizations of citizens opposed to the Brown decision also began about the same time.

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The same month the Brown decision came down a group of white citizens in Indianola organized the first Citizens’ Council in Mississippi. The Council, which opposed desegregation, set up private schools for white students. It spread to other parts of the state and region and claimed a membership of 80,000 by 1956, Sansing has written.

Two years later, the Legislature established a Sovereignty Commission, whose stated goal was “to prevent encroachment upon the rights of this and other states by the federal government.”

Some of the funds appropriated to the Commission were channeled to the Council, Sansing has written.

The state required each county to submit a plan for school-district consolidation. The number of school districts was reduced by nearly nine-tenths, from about 1,500 in 1953 to around the current number, 152, by about three years later, said Lovell.

Carroll County, which Lovell had served as superintendent before heading the SEFC, alone had 13 separate school districts and about 50 black schools, mostly within walking distance of its students’ homes, each with about one or two teachers, he said.

Warren County’s black schools for students in grades one through eight had been consolidated by 1954 into three locations: Kings, Cedars and Bovina, Banks said.

Warren County was “ahead of the state” in such consolidation, he added.

Before that consolidation occurred, though, Warren County had about the same number of schools as Carroll County in 1953, Banks said. “It was very similar here,” he said.

Black students who lived in Warren County and attended high school did so at the city high school, Bowman.

Former Vicksburg Municipal Separate School District Superintendent Jim Stirgus Sr., now the director of the Vicksburg Housing Authority, came to Bowman as a teacher four years after the Brown decision. In the middle of the next year, black high school students moved to the new Rosa A. Temple High School, which they attended until schools were desegregated. Stirgus was principal there.

Public school desegregation was phased in here, beginning in 1966 and ending about 1971. Unlike some other places in the country, the process went smoothly, Banks said.

After separate but equal and before attendance zones with lines drawn to require racial balance, suits by federal officials during the 15 years after the Brown decision resulted in a plan called “freedom of choice.”

“Under this court order parents were given the choice of enrolling their children in either the white or black school system,” Sansing has written. “Black parents who chose to send their children to predominantly white schools under this plan were subjected to economic and social pressures to withdraw their children. When these pressures were unsuccessful, black parents were sometimes subjected to force and violence.

“After years of litigation, the Supreme Court ordered the consolidation of two existing school systems into one integrated system. This order brought a torrent of protest from those whites who opposed integration.”

After desegregation the SEFC per-pupil credit that had been one-and-a-half times greater for each black student was equalized with that for white students, Lovell said.

Students in black schools before desegregation used mainly textbooks that had been discarded from white schools, Stirgus said. And less money was available for other things at black schools, like band uniforms, Stirgus said.

The buses that carried black students were also old and often arrived late, he said.

Stirgus made clear that he was in favor of public-school desegregation, but said that, despite their limitations, many black schools “had some of the finest teachers in the state of Mississippi. And I’m comparing them to white teachers.”

Mississippi’s university system remained segregated until 1962. Black teachers had earned degrees from such black colleges as Tougaloo, Alcorn State, Jackson State, Dillard and Xavier of New Orleans, Talladega and Tuskegee of Alabama, Morris Brown of Atlanta, Southern of Baton Rouge and Florida A & M, Stirgus said.

Thelma J. Watson taught English in Vicksburg for 33 years, beginning at Bowman in 1949 and retiring from Vicksburg High School in 1982.

“We were really dedicated teachers and taught our kids as much as we could, even though we didn’t have all the facilities,” she said of the years when all her students were black.

The minimum-foundation program “guaranteed that each school would have a basic amount to operate on,” Banks said. It resulted in some poorer districts’ receiving more state funding and some more-affluent ones’ receiving less, Banks said.

“It didn’t affect us a whole lot,” Banks said of the program’s early years. In subsequent years, as the Legislature raised the funding floor, the program had a greater effect, he added.

The Brown opinion, decided unanimously, was written by Earl Warren, then chief justice. It cited the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees to all citizens equal protection of the laws. The court had OK’d “separate but equal” in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. That decision was on railway accommodations, allowing separate cars for blacks, and did not address public education.

In the early days of Watson’s career, students from as far away as Fayette and Port Gibson would attend Vicksburg schools, she said. Some would spend nights with relatives in the city, she added.

“Those were trying times, but through it all we made it,” Watson said. “We had outstanding students, I will say that. We had students we could look to with pride, who took what we gave them and made a success of themselves.”