Private Academy Backlash

Charles Lowery and other leaders of the Citizen's Committee for Public Education present their petition supporting the local public schools to the Starkville School Board; 1100 residents had signed the petition. No date, but likely 1970, likely from the Starkville Daily News. From the personal collections of Charles and Susie Lowery.

Charles Lowery and other leaders of the Citizen’s Committee for Public Education present their petition supporting the local public schools to the Starkville School Board; 1100 residents had signed the petition. No date, circa1970, likely from the Starkville Daily News. From the personal collections of Charles and Susie Lowery.

In a state where the children of white elites had long been privately educated and no real public system of education had existed before 1870, taxpayer-supported schools, especially for African American children, were controversial.  Reacting negatively to the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, Mississippi legislators proposed a constitutional amendment abolishing the state’s public school system.  Its goal was to circumvent school desegregation by transitioning the state’s white students  into state supported private schools. Although the amendment failed, it was not the last time Mississippi officials resisted integration by trying to establish private schools.

Private school founding exploded in Mississippi between 1964 and 1971 in reaction to increased civil rights activism and the landmark 1969 Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education decision, in which the Supreme Court mandated the immediate desegregation of Mississippi’s public schools.  White parents and concerned politicians were outraged by the ruling, arguing that forced desegregation would result in “overcrowded classrooms, poor quality of instruction, breakdown of communication, and busing of children over long distances” (Bureau of Education, 1). By the Spring of 1971 there were 31,950 students enrolled in 106 private segregated schools across Mississippi (Sansing, A Descriptive Survey).

Founded in 1969, Starkville Academy was one of the 115 new private schools established across the state between 1966 and 1970 to resist federally mandated school desegregation (Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All, 173).  According to scholar Michael W. Fuquay, “the private school movement was a direct outgrowth of, and in many respects indistinguishable from, the segregationist movement of the White Citizens’ Councils” (Fuquay, “Civil Rights and the Private School Movement,” 160). Oktibbeha County residents were no exception.  As local Horace Harned, a former state legislator and State Sovereignty Commission member said in an interview in 1976, “We felt that this would destroy the effectiveness of our public schools and that we must act to oppose and, if possible, reverse this unconstitutional decision to preserve our sovereignty. Thus followed the movement to private schools in the South and the formation of the State Sovereignty Commission by the legislature” (Harned interview, 2).

James T. Wooten, "Exodus Seen as Threat," The New York Times January 5, 1970, pg. 28.

James T. Wooten, “Exodus Seen as Threat,” The New York Times January 5, 1970, pg 28.

Mississippi’s Governor John Bell Williams sanctioned the push for private, all-white academies, saying that he would “seek ways and means of rendering assistance to the establishment of private schools” and provided state tuition assistance, tax credits, and textbook funding (NYT, 1970).

The founding of private schools perpetuated segregation. In a 1970 interview with the New York Times, an anonymous Mississippi legislator said, “What we’re going to wind up with eventually, is a private school for the white kids and a state-subsidized system for the n—–s” (NYT, Wooten, 1970).

Significantly, not all whites in Starkville supported abandoning the public schools in favor of Starkville Academy; some strongly supported public education.  Led by Dr. Charles Lowery, a history professor at Mississippi State University, and his wife, Susie, they urged their white Starkville neighbors to keep sending their children to the city’s public schools, even circulating a petition.  

Explore newspaper articles about private academies, 1964-1970

This project is funded in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Mississippi Library Commission, and the Mississippi Humanities Council.

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