In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, that “separate but equal” schools violated the Constitution. Sixty-two years later, after a federal court rejected alternate schemes proposed by the school district last week, the U.S. Department of Justice has ordered the tiny Delta town of Cleveland, Mississippi, to desegregate its schools, which have been frozen in a pre-Brown universe—not simply resegregated, like many schools in the country, but never integrated in the first place.
The Justice Department’s decision has been a long time coming: It’s the latest salvo in a lawsuit that was originally filed by black parents in Cleveland in 1965—a full half-century ago, and just over a decade after Brown.
In a statement released Monday by the Justice Department, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said, “Six decades after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared that ‘separate but equal has no place’ in public schools, this decision serves as a reminder to districts that delaying desegregation obligations is both unacceptable and unconstitutional.”
As of last year, 359 of the 360 students at Cleveland’s East Side High, according to the Hechinger Report, were black; the racial makeup of the historically black D.M. Smith Middle School was similarly lopsided. While the traditionally white middle and high schools are more racially mixed in a town with a student population that’s 66 percent black and 30 percent white, the black schools have never had more than a handful of nonblack students enrolled.* Under the Justice Department’s plan, the city must combine the middle and high schools for the first time in more than 100 years.
In an era when schools are becoming resegregated not just in the Deep South but all over the country, the “inadequate dual system” in never-integrated Cleveland—where there is an actual railroad track dividing white and black neighborhoods—offers an extreme case. To avoid consolidating the schools, the town of 12,000 has tried magnet programs and International Baccalaureate offerings to attract white students to the black schools, so far without success. After decades of punting, the town finally has to take real action. They’ve certainly waited long enough.
*Correction, May 17, 2016: This post originally misstated that Cleveland’s East Side High School and D.M. Smith Middle School have never had more than a handful of nonwhite students enrolled. They have never had more than a handful of nonblack students.