CLEVELAND, Miss. (CNN) — A short jaunt east of the former railroad tracks that used to divide black and white in this town, you could hear cousins Lindell Little and Vell Mays cutting up as Little worked on his bicycle.
The railroad tracks have been gone for years. In their place is a half-mile promenade that, to a lesser degree, still serves as a racial divide.
But nothing seems to split this town like the prospect of closing East Side High.
A federal judge this month, handing down her decision after five decades of on-and-off litigation, ordered the middle and high schools consolidated, meaning nearly all-black East Side must be integrated with the historically white but now-racially split Cleveland High.
The school board has issued statements denouncing the decision and has until mid-June to appeal it.
Everyone has an opinion on the order, including Cleveland natives Little and Mays. Mays, 21, graduated from East Side in 2013, Little from Cleveland High in 2008.
As Little tinkered with his bike’s back wheel, Mays reminisced about his high school days — the football games, the fights, racing dirt bikes, “senior skip days,” the homecoming parties. He’d be “brokenhearted” if, as the judge has ordered, the city did away with East Side to make way for the middle schools, he said.
“We always play against Cleveland High,” he said. “If you take that away, how are we going to celebrate homecoming?”
Mays feels he got a good education at East Side, but Little interjects, saying he got a better one at Cleveland High. His aunt urged him to choose CHS because it’s a safer, better school, he asserted, perhaps not knowing East Side boasts a superior math and English proficiency in state testing.
Unlike his cousin, Little welcomes the federal integration ruling.
“Everybody’d have to get along,” the 27-year-old said. “It’d make everything more comfortable.”
East Side has spirit, yes it does
Cleveland sits deep in the Mississippi Delta, an ovate wedge of the state stretching from Vicksburg to Memphis, Tennessee, set off by the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers. The region is known as much for giving birth to blues music as it is for clinging to the vestiges of Jim Crow well past 1965, the year the school lawsuit was originally filed.
Tucked among sprawling farms that produce soybeans, rice, cotton, corn, sorghum and other crops, Cleveland was once described by a federal judge as an “oasis in the Mississippi Delta.” It features an acute-care hospital with a Level IV trauma center and a university with almost 5,000 students.
Yet for all its progress, vestiges of old priorities remain. In front of the Bolivar County Sheriff’s Office, a two-story obelisk commemorating Confederate dead towers over a 4-foot-high marble monument for county residents killed in both world wars.
To be sure, few of the black students who attend East Side High today seem to feel hard done by.
Many say they’re OK with the way things are. As school officials opposing integration are happy to point out, those students say they were given a choice whether to attend Cleveland High or East Side. They chose the latter.
Not that that will matter to the U.S. Justice Department, which heralded the federal ruling. The decision came after several integration attempts that, ultimately, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi deemed inadequate. The Justice Department’s civil rights division has reviewed or intervened in more than 100 school district cases since the turn of the millennium, at least 30 of them involving race and at least seven of them, including Cleveland’s, classified as “longstanding segregation” cases.
Plenty of black residents in this town of 12,000 testified on behalf of the 131 “Negro children” whose parents and guardians were plaintiffs in the original 1965 filing.
Walk around town for a couple of days and you’ll hear folks echo the sentiments in that testimony. They say the specter of institutional racism looms over the schools’ demographics.
Perhaps equally, if not more, you’ll hear ambivalence or outright opposition to the ruling — and not solely from white residents, but from the very black residents the ruling purports to protect.
In the parking lot of Delta State University’s Walter Sillers Coliseum, named for the state’s segregationist and Dixiecrat former House speaker, three generations of East Side High alums made their way to what could be East Side’s final graduation ceremony.
Mother Lisa Cooper and grandmother Carolyn Cooper, classes of 1986 and 1972 respectively, beamed as they helped Mia Haywood, 19, fix her gown. Little sister Tamia Haywood, 15, looked on.
The federal ruling has cut this quartet down the middle.
“They need to keep East Side the way it is,” said Mia, the graduate. “They’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s East Side, and it’s been there a long time. Why would they change it? We Trojans for life.”
Asked if she concurs, little sister Tamia demurred. She just wants to graduate, she said. From where isn’t so important.
“Not important?” Mia barked at her.
“Well, it is important,” Tamia replied to her sister, before returning her attention to a CNN reporter. “But not really.”
Whites already attend East Side, Mia said, referring to 30 International Baccalaureate students from Cleveland High who visit East Side for a couple of periods each day (18 black IB students make the daily journey from CHS as well).
Lisa Cooper, 48, agrees with her older daughter, again citing East Side’s tradition — “It’s like a historic landmark to me,” she said — but Carolyn Cooper, 63, was having none of it. Though the city is far more integrated than it was when the lawsuit was originally filed, a 2010 analysis conducted for the school board showed the east side of town was 87% black while three out of four residents on the west side were white.
“Kids learn what they live,” the grandmother said. And in Cleveland, she said, the unfortunate lesson is that the races mostly remain separate, divided by the former railroad tracks.
Carolyn Cooper would like to see black and white students going to school together, enjoying the same resources and curriculum, but with one caveat: Don’t shut down East Side.
“I’m a diehard Trojan,” she said.
An apple rolls away from the tree
The Rev. Edward Duvall Sr. knows what he’s up against when he stands for integrating Cleveland’s schools.
“Our kids think in terms of tradition. It’s hard for them to see the bigger picture for future generations,” he said in the sparsely appointed living room of his one-story brick home.
Duvall graduated from East Side in 1977. His son, 16-year-old Ed Jr., who got home from classes at East Side during the interview, hoped to do the same before the federal ruling put that future in jeopardy.
Ed Jr. has a special perspective. He went to the predominantly white Hayes Cooper Elementary School before attending both the middle schools the federal judge wants consolidated.
Aware his father has testified on behalf of the black plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Ed Jr. candidly shared his thoughts. Like Mia Haywood, the bottom line is what’s important: graduating, then college.
Teachers care for their students at every school he’s attended, though he concedes it was a little easier to learn at Hayes Cooper. He chose East Side out of — you guessed it — tradition, including the school’s homecoming festivities and its basketball program.
All the talk of bigots and strife “makes me feel like I still live in the ’60s with Jim Crow laws,” he said. “I can go for the integration, but I can also stay at East Side High. It’s a coin toss.”
Before jumping to conclusions…
Rural Mississippi conjures its own prejudices and stereotypes, no doubt. But to write off Cleveland as some misguided backwater beached in bygone times would not be doing the hamlet justice.
Yes, racism once ran rampant here, as it did throughout the South and beyond. Robert F. Kennedy once compared poverty among blacks here to that of a Third World country, and in 1958, B.L. Bell, the onetime supervisor of “colored schools” in Bolivar County, asked for a job with segregationist Gov. J.P. Coleman’s Sovereignty Commission.
“Your method of approach to this problem certainly meets the approval of all the Negroes of the thinking class and those who think soundly,” he wrote.
While you might not hear the n-word or see any hicks in hoods walking around Cleveland today, you can find white residents muttering about blacks taking too long to cross the street or playing their music too loudly. At the same time, an elderly black woman asserted during an interview that a CNN reporter must be Jewish because of his curly hair.
Funny, the ideas people conjure about each other when they don’t mingle so much.
Take a stroll on the downtown promenade — a stretch known as Cotton Row — and you’ll see examples of how Cleveland blends Southern charm and modernity.
Named for Grover Cleveland, the only two-time U.S. president, the city has banks, jewelry stores and insurance companies sitting alongside art galleries, salons and hip eateries.
A refurbished train depot, with its old Illinois Central caboose on display, serves as a bookend. At the other end, Willie’s Gun Shop faces clothing boutiques, florists, a Christian bookstore, consignment outlet and candy shop. In between, benches and a pavilion provide respites among the crepe myrtles from the Mississippi heat.
On a recent Friday afternoon, a middle-aged black man parked his bicycle in front of the municipal building without locking it. Across the street, a man in a linen suit braved the 80-degree heat, occasionally dipping into the local meat market for sweet tea refills. A few doors down, a woman brushed sweat from her brow as she planted petunias in one of the many stone planters downtown.
Near the Confederate memorial, a Mississippi Blues Trail marker celebrates the “enlightenment” of W.C. Handy, who after seeing a “ragged local trio” wow the crowd in Cleveland, went on to become the “father of the blues.” Delta legends John Lee Hooker and B.B. King were born not far away. Ike Turner, too. Dockery Farms, a plantation that bluesmen Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson once called home, sits just east of town.
Other historic markers around town honor the Adath Israel Temple, a Jewish synagogue built in 1927; civil rights activist Amzie Moore, for whom a city park was renamed in 2001; and the Chinese Mission School, founded in 1937 to educate the area’s Chinese children after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling excluded them from public schools.
‘Well, this would be a good thing’
Jamie Jacks, an attorney for the school district, is proud of Cleveland. She’s originally from Louisiana, but she’s represented the schools since 2005 and is married to a Cleveland native.
When the U.S. Justice Department called in 2007 to say it was revisiting outstanding desegregation lawsuits, she was excited to show off the district, she said, standing in the shade of an oak tree on East Side’s campus.
“I welcomed them into the district and wanted them to come see what we were doing because I was proud of what we’d accomplished in Cleveland,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well this would be a good thing.’ ”
Though East Side, D.M. Smith Middle School and two elementary schools not affected by the federal ruling are predominantly black, she feels the district is integrated, “the only one for hundreds of miles in the Mississippi Delta.”
Responding to federal demands over the years, she said, the district has rezoned, established neighborhood schools, employed a successful majority-to-minority transfer program, and procured magnet grants to encourage whites to enroll in largely black schools.
“We think in 2016, we’re doing what Brown v BOE told us to do and that is: You can’t assign students to schools based on race. Of course not. What we’re saying is students have a choice in this district, and it’s created a system that works and has a stable, diverse student enrollment,” she said.
So, Jacks said, she was surprised by the latest federal ruling.
“For someone to come in and say you’re doing these awful things when you know in your heart that you’ve tried multiple tactics to try to get things the way the DOJ would want them, it’s really hurtful,” she said.
Asked whether the students at East Side might benefit from more integration, Jacks said integration already existed in the form of the 30 white International Baccalaureate students. She isn’t alone. Many black and white parents and students around town told CNN they felt this represented integration.
Jacks said there are schools more segregated than Cleveland’s all over the country.
Indeed, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project reported this month that the nation’s most segregated school systems are in New York, Illinois and Maryland. Christine Rossell, a Boston University professor and expert for the district during the federal case, testified that Cleveland’s schools were more integrated than those in Kansas City, Missouri; Fulton County, Georgia; Dallas and Denver.
“I think the question is: What is the district’s constitutional violation? Where have we violated the Constitution?” Jacks asked. “We fulfilled everything that we were supposed to do in every desegregation order that has ever been entered into this case.”
She wouldn’t tip her hand on whether the district plans to appeal the ruling — the district has been clear in public statements that it’s a possibility — but Jacks firmly stated what she feels would be the consequence of federal intervention: more segregation.
“We know that if we force people into making a school choice they wouldn’t necessarily make, that statistically in a district like Cleveland we will lose integration,” she said, referring to white flight and the prospect of white parents sending their kids to private academies.
‘That’s my brother, that’s my sister’
Jacks acknowledges there are racial issues in Cleveland, just as “there are probably race issues everywhere.”
Though many older residents are quick to cite old examples, members of the younger generation say they don’t see bigotry as much as their parents and grandparents did.
Little and Mays, the guys working on the bicycle, recalled a time, maybe 10 or 12 years ago, when black folks didn’t cross the tracks and white folks didn’t come to “the ‘hood.” Police would harass black folks on the west side, “swerving down there thinking we’re gangbanging,” Mays said.
Things are getting better, they said. Still, said Mays, even with family on the west side, he doesn’t cross the tracks unless he needs to hit the gym.
Lataivian Wright, 18, told CNN just before East Side’s graduation that the last time he experienced racism was in the fall. Players from a North Mississippi high school hurled racial epithets at East Side’s players during a game, he said.
Asked if he’d be sad if his was the last graduating class at East Side, Wright predictably cited tradition. He chose East Side, he said, because his family went there — but he didn’t seem too broken up by the prospect of combining the two high schools.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “It’ll give more kids the possibility to get to a better school. Kids can adapt to the adverse effects of multiculturalism.”
The following day, Taylor Morse was holding court among a group of black Cleveland High classmates at graduation. The 18-year-old’s tassel dangled before his face as he denounced the ruling and bragged about his school’s diversity.
“It’s not a racial or integration thing because that’s my brother, that’s my brother, that’s my sister,” he said, pointing to classmates. “We grew up together. It doesn’t matter.”
As a black classmate, Darius Hamilton, 17, tossed an arm over Morse’s shoulder, Emily Stallings, 18, explained to CNN how this has been an issue since time immemorial.
“My dad graduated from Cleveland High,” said the honor student. “It was a thing then, and it was a thing when his parents graduated from Cleveland High.”
Cleveland High’s integration is represented in the school’s valedictorians, Stallings said, pointing to Jasmine Shepard, 18, and Heather Bouse, 17 (The school district believes Shepard is the school’s first black valedictorian, though it has had several black salutatorians, Jacks said).
Both said CHS is already integrated and that some of the schools’ traditions will be lost in consolidation. But the students will work through it, they said.
“We get along much better than they think we do,” Bouse said.
Added Shepard, “They think we’re a bunch of racists, basically. We’re not.”
CNN’s Nick Valencia and Devon M. Sayers contributed to this report.