School Choice and Segregation – Walthall County, Mississippi versus Washington D.C.

I said I was going to write a little more about this ruling that came out today regarding the schools in Walthall County, where my parents reside. The brief summary of the ruling is that the court ruled that the school district had to stop letting white children transfer into the one majority white school in the county, which happens to be the Salem School, the school closest to where my parents live. The other schools in the county are located within Tylertown and are majority black. As a result of the in-district transfers, Salem had a majority white population (over 60% white), while the Tylertown schools only had 20% white children. The even more disturbing part of what the Walthall County Schools were doing was that school officials were assigning kids in elementary school to classes at the Tylertown schools based on race, so that classrooms were all white or all black. There is no defense to that.

Clearly, there was not a race-neutral reason for allowing these transfers. And clearly, enforcing the 1970 desegregation order was necessary.

However, I wish to point out that I live in a metropolitan area where the schools are far more racially and economically segregated than the district in which I grew up in within the South (and by the numbers, appear more segregated than the Walthall County school district). In the District of Columbia, White people whose children do not live in the right neighborhoods, or whose children do not gain acceptance to the one or two top high schools in the city choose to send their children to private school or move out of the city to the white bread upper-middle class suburbs of Northern Virginia or Montgomery County. Parents willingly segregate the schools here by their own choices. The only difference between here and Mississippi (and I would venture, most school districts in America, particularly the urban ones or ones with large minority populations) is that you cannot put a court order on a parent’s choice of where their children attend school whereas you can put a court order on a district that allows intra-district transfers to racially realign the schools because of parent and student choice. However, as the comments on articles like the one in the Washington Post illustrate, most people blame Mississippi and target the people there as backward rednecks instead of looking at the WILLFUL segregation that exists in their own communities.

My dad graduated from Salem High in 1969, one year before the federal court’s original integration order. My mother attended East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, NC and graduated a couple of years before the landmark busing in the Charlotte schools began. My parents are clearly the product of segregated primary and secondary schools. However, my parents made the choice to send their daughters to a high school in which we were the racial minority. Yes, in the South, that happens. I would venture to say that few students get the experience that my sisters and I had, to receive a quality education in a racially diverse school, in ANY location in America. Furthermore, when my parents returned to Mississippi, my mom chose NOT to teach in the Walthall County schools based on how they were run, and instead chose to work in a school district that reflected the racial makeup of the community. My mother also refused to work in the historically white private academies that sprung up across Mississippi in the 1970s as a refusal of some in the white community to refuse to submit to integration. Even those academies are now becoming more integrated, my mother still refuses to teach at them based on principle. The fact is, my mom is an example of the many people who live in Mississippi who are there trying to make things better and give all kids an opportunity, regardless of background. Many of the people criticizing Mississippi today that are making blanket statements about the state are ignorant of the people of the state.

There are many people in Mississippi who will welcome this ruling and are not, in fact, clinging to the racist policies of the past. In fact, the MAJORITY of white kids that were attending the Tylertown schools attended the majority black schools, as stopping the intra-district transfers only changes increases the racial makeup of the Tylertown school and decreases the makeup of the Salem school by about 7%, according to the article.

I am glad of the ruling, but I dislike the broad inferences people make about Mississippi based upon it. People will always love to use Mississippi as a scapegoat for injustice in this country. It is easy to blame a small, rural state that is considered the “other” than looking at what choices they themselves make every day.

2 thoughts on “School Choice and Segregation – Walthall County, Mississippi versus Washington D.C.

  1. Hi Leslie,Goodness knows I am just lurking around the web and found this article- I work over in Wolff and anywho- this article reminded me of my childhood. I was raised after the age of 10 in a very white (97% white) county in rural Western NY state. I had spent several years in Chattanooga, TN and missed it- it was far more diverse. In high school I had a teacher that always made fun of southerners as racist, and ignorant- I reported him and he ended up not getting his contract renewed. My husband has experienced more racism in NY state than anywhere else in the country. He loves the south too- and like you I think people misunderstand or wish to pass judgment on the entire region without cause. I hear you about DC- here the racial segregation is by choice due to wealth and all my DC friends sent their kids to private school.Nice piece! Naomi House

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