In the momentous Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated public education violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Separate educational facilities, the decision stated, meant unequal facilities for African American students. Another ruling the next year (Brown II), called for desegregation to occur “with all deliberate speed” across the nation.
White residents of Starkville, like other towns across the South, resisted this decision, seeing it as an attack on their way of life. Under additional pressure from the federal government following passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Starkville and other Mississippi school systems adopted a new freedom-of-choice plan in 1965, which allowed parents to select their children’s school. As historian Charles Bolton notes, freedom-of-choice “placed excessive burdens on black parents and children to dismantle a dual school system that whites seemingly had no real intention of relinquishing” (Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All, 164). In Starkville as elsewhere, change was negligible; during the five years it existed, few African Americans attended white schools and no whites enrolled at African American schools.
U.S. Department of Education officials and local African American leaders were not satisfied with this plan; they saw it as another attempt to delay desegregation. Even when Department of Education officials visited Starkville, threatened loss of funding, and then suspended federal funding in September 1968, the dual system continued.
In 1968, a small group of local African American leaders led by Dr. Douglas Conner called for the immediate and total desegregation of all grades at the same time they tried to force change through the courts. They also expressed concerned that freedom-of-choice would close black schools and lay off black teachers because whites would not attend African American schools and African Americans would opt into white schools to desegregate them.
Tensions came to head in 1969 and 1970. At the national level, in the October 1969 Alexander V. Holmes County Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court called for the immediate end to segregated school systems in Mississippi, overturning the Brown II doctrine of “all deliberate speed.” A few months later, in February 1970, local legal efforts paid off when a U.S. District Court judge in Aberdeen ordered the end to Starkville’s dual system beginning in the 1970-71 school year. Under this ruling, no Starkville school buildings would be closed and school faculty would be integrated; a biracial committee would help oversee the process.
Thus, in 1970-71, Starkville’s segregated system of public education finally came to its official end. As Dr. Douglas Conner, noted in his autobiography, “The dual system was eliminated; sixteen years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, Starkville was finally in compliance. It had been a long fight, but it was worth it” (Conner and Marszalek, A Black Physician’s Story, 154).
Yet as evidence on this site attests, 1970-71 was not so much an end as a beginning of a gradual and often tension-filled process that would continue for years to come.
Integration: 1970, year 1
Under the mandate of a court order, Starkville desegregated its public schools during the 1970-71 school year. Desegregation came with costs and opportunities. Henderson High School, the city’s sole African American secondary school, was not closed, as some had feared, but it was downgraded to a middle school, a move that upset many in the community. African American students thus found themselves integrated into the formerly all-white Starkville High. This was a peaceful process, but there was plenty of tension and uneasiness, especially that first year.
That did not hold true for long, as administrators quickly began using standardized achievement test scores to sort students, which effectively re-segregated the school. In 1971, Rosa Stewart, a respected African American teacher, critiqued such “tracking,” noting that there were “‘many all-black classrooms’ taught by black teachers.” (Piper, The Civil Rights Movement in Starkville, MS, 52).
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.