Mississippi's School Equalization Program, 1945-1954: "A Last Gasp to Try to Maintain a Segregated Educational System"

Article excerpt

A GENUINE ATTEMPT TO INTEGRATE MISSISSIPPI'S PUBLIC SCHOOLS DID not occur until 1970, sixteen years after the United States Supreme Court's pivotal 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. White resistance to school desegregation proved both deep-seated and sustained, relenting only under a steady stream of legal action by black parents and federal intervention. Consequently, the elimination of Mississippi's dual educational system occurred largely on white terms. Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs and the black community saw an erosion of the control they had exercised over their children's education. In the years that followed, as federal support waned, efforts in Mississippi and across the nation to create unitary school systems usually floundered, in many cases leading to a resegregation of schools.(1) Given the difficulties surrounding the dismantling of separate schools, it is not surprising that many have judged school integration a failure.(2) One flaw in the process that a number of commentators have pointed to is that the attempts to achieve school integration did little to help (or even hindered) the attainment of the larger goal surrounding school integration efforts: the improvement of black education.(3)

In the decade before the Brown decision, upgrading black schools within segregation was considered a viable alternative to school integration by both blacks and whites. This strategy of educational equalization sought to ensure a balanced distribution of resources between separate black and white schools. From 1925 until 1950, black southerners, working primarily through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), focused their efforts on trying to equalize educational spending rather than directly assaulting the Plessy doctrine of "separate but equal"; after the NAACP shifted its tactics to challenge Jim Crow head on, many black southerners continued to embrace the equalization policy as the best method for improving black education. Southern state governments in the decade after World War II, faced with both a federal government increasingly sympathetic to the cause of black civil rights and changes in the region's demographics and economy that threatened to undermine the racial status quo, also recognized that a little more emphasis on the "equal" part of the separate but equal equation might be prudent if segregation were to be preserved. After the war, these states all began or enhanced programs to improve black education.(4) And some southern states, such as Mississippi, continued to advocate educational equalization even after the Brown decision had declared segregated schools inherently unequal, in the vain hope that the federal government might somehow still accept an improved version of separate but equal over desegregation.

Although implementing the Brown mandate ultimately proved difficult, educational equalization was never a viable alternative. An examination of Mississippi's educational equalization program of the 1940s and early 1950s shows that it did little to improve black education in the state and ultimately demonstrated the need for the establishment of a unitary school system. The state's equalization program failed for a number of reasons. First, as one of the poorest states in the nation, Mississippi had limited resources to expend on closing the huge gap between black and white education created under the system of segregation. The only real solution to this problem was to obtain federal funds, but the use of such monies threatened to destroy the Jim Crow arrangements the state's equalization program was designed to protect. Second, Mississippi, like other southern states, developed its equalization program as a bulwark against perceived threats to segregation. Consequently, equalization proposals were designed to make only minimal adjustments in state spending on black education in the hopes that such an effort would deflect a possible challenge to separate but clearly unequal arrangements. …