For many of today’s young people, the civil rights movement has been relegated to America’s mythic past. Though they celebrate the toppling of segregation’s legal structures, few born after the 1960s feel a present connection to the movement’s human drama and sense of urgency. In the Mississippi Delta, however, rural communities have a rich sense of place: Every creek, cotton field, church and courthouse has a story to tell. In the Delta, young African Americans are inspired by local civil rights heroes, men and women both known and unknown to the outside world.
There, children and their elders work side by side to keep transforming institutions of local power. In doing so, they are conscious of carrying the civil rights movement forward into a new century. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed the right to vote, but Mississippi’s black residents are making sure that every vote counts and receives its proper weight. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS (1954) decided that “separate” was no longer “equal” under the law, but residents are still working today, through the interconnected grassroots organizations of Southern Echo and the Mississippi Education Working Group (MEWG), to equalize educational opportunity in the public schools, which few white students attend and which usually offer substandard resources and instruction.
Local Community Organizing
In the Mississippi Delta, an average of one out of two African-American children is born into poverty; area schools provide meager skills for the 67 to 80 percent of youngsters who graduate from high school and hope to advance economically. If problems like these are common to many parts of the United States, they are compounded in Mississippi, where they embed themselves in racial, social and economic patterns dating back to the plantation era.
“Racism in Mississippi is not about hate,” says Leroy Johnson, director of Southern Echo, the community training and development organization founded in 1990 by three veterans of the civil rights movement: Hollis Watkins, Michael Sayer and Johnson himself – a much younger man than the others, but a veteran nonetheless. “I was a ‘lap activist,’” Johnson explains. “I sat through civil rights meetings on my father’s knee.”
Southern Echo reiterates in its brochures and grant applications that “racism is about domination and control of the African-American community by the white community… hate is merely a tool for manipulating people.” Thinking about racism in this way, one begins to see why a grassroots movement to improve the public schools has evolved from earlier civil rights activity in Mississippi.
When Southern Echo organizers began holding listening sessions in the Delta region, in the early ’90s, they found that many adults were so glad to have any sort of education offered to their children that they hesitated to step forward and demand something more. African-American parents who did work for improvements within their schools often encountered hostile or contemptuous administrators who mistook parents’ lack of formal schooling for a lack of wisdom. Southern Echo learned that parents also knew that their children were stultified and mistreated, but needed to learn what their rights were and to develop a community vision of what education could and should be.
Delta school boards have a habit of operating with tightly controlled agendas, inconvenient meeting schedules, and invisible budget processes. School board members often serve at the behest of white residents whose children attend the private academies. In some schools, student discipline is unusually harsh and is used as a way to keep parents and civic activists in line as well. A child who exercises too much initiative or displays too much curiosity might be beaten or suspended as a “troublemaker.” Parents and teachers who hold unauthorized meetings or otherwise challenge the status quo can be threatened with job loss and retribution against family members.
Some communities where school tensions are acute have, despite the odds, become places of hope and growing cooperation. Grassroots reform efforts are thriving. The emphasis of local organizations loosely affiliated with Southern Echo through MEWG has been to exercise more control over the local and state mechanisms of government and authority. MEWG groups turn to Southern Echo for technological, legislative and organizational training, as well as for legal help. Their priorities, on the other hand, are determined by what each individual community considers most important.
Organizing for Change in Tunica County
Seventeen miles south of Memphis, TN, along the Mississippi River, sits Tunica County, ranked the second-poorest county in the nation, according to the 1990 census. Tunica’s African-American children attend majority black public schools with a long record of low academic performance, while most white parents send their children to a private academy originally established to avoid federal court desegregation orders. The public schools have been chronically indebted and underserved.
The Concerned Citizens for a Better Tunica County (Concerned Citizens) was formed in 1993 to address these problems. The coalition of activists, parents, students and local school board members (aided by Southern Echo) negotiated successfully to allocate 20 percent of new tax revenues from the county’s expanding casino industry explicitly for public schools. School debt was eliminated within six months of this policy’s adoption.
In the years that followed, the group worked to defeat a proposal by the Tunica County Board of Supervisors to re-register all voters and to delay construction of new schools until existing public school facilities were renovated.
In 1997 the Mississippi Department of Education tried to abolish Tunica’s school district and assume direct state control of its operations. The stated reason was the district’s “poor performance,” but local and state civil rights groups believe the real motive was to assist powerful development interests who wanted to build a new school near a planned upscale housing development and farther away from Tunica’s African-American students. In Tunica, where the best jobs available to black families paid less than $18,000 a year, segregation of the new school would be assured not by law but by economic exclusion.
Concerned Citizens, joined by members of MEWG, Southern Echo, Mississippi’s Legislative Black Caucus, State Rep. Bennie Thompson and other organizations saved the school by fighting a major legal battle and presenting four alternative sites suitable for the school. Eventually, the new school was constructed two miles away from the original site and fairly close to an African-American development.
The victory of Concerned Citizens and its allies demonstrated that local African Americans could stand up to a powerful establishment that included the local school board, the County Board of Supervisors, the State Board of Education, the State Superintendent of Education, the State Attorney General, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a powerful Mississippi law firm and many state legislators. In 2000 Concerned Citizens proved its strength by winning three of the five positions on the local school board.
Fighting for Quality Education in Holmes County
Another example of a grassroots organization involving students directly in research and organizing activity is Citizens for Quality Education (CQE) in Holmes County, formed in 1996. In this county with its long civil rights history, African-American children go to 100 percent black public schools, while white students attend a private academy opened in 1971 to block federally ordered school desegregation. As in Tunica County, the public schools are inadequate and starved for money and have been plagued by blatant abuses of power by teachers and principals. Initially, CQE galvanized community support by seeking to remove a third-grade teacher who was terrorizing her students by beating them and insulting their families. When complaints to the principal and superintendent went unheeded, CQE recorded student statements, held community gatherings to develop action plans and held formal meetings with both the superintendent and school board. The teacher was eventually fired.
During the 1998–99 school year, students from all grade levels surveyed and located 35 illegal toxic dump sites in Holmes County. After preparing a slide show that emphasized the most hazardous materials, students pressured the County Board of Supervisors into letting them present their findings at a meeting. Initially hostile to the idea, the supervisors were moved by the students’ hard work and clarity. They agreed to clean up the sites, to consider student proposals to locate garbage collection centers throughout the county and to schedule bulk item pickups. Holmes County students also worked with CQE to get the Federal Aviation Administration to halt the aerial spraying of pesticides on cotton plantations surrounding many of the local schools – a practice that had exposed students to chemicals drifting through their classroom windows.
In addition to its environmental activism, CQE has assumed a major role in the Mississippi Education Working Group by researching the impact of high-stakes testing on schools staffed by long-term substitute teachers.
Preserving a Community School in Montgomery County
At least one Delta community group, the Action and Education Reform/Concerned Citizens of Montgomery County (ACEAR), has organized not just to improve schools, but also to preserve a school it knows and cares for – Duck Hill Elementary School, located in a small, predominantly African-American community of the same name. About 75 percent of the students are black and about 90 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. The Duck Hill students perform close to or even above average on most standardized tests, with the second grade recently scoring 100 percent proficiency in math and English. The school offers accelerated courses and has introduced innovative programs in both math and reading.
Parents came together in 1997 when Duck Hill’s high school closed. It did not seem fair that their students would have to be bused 40 miles away to a largely black high school in Grenada when the mostly white high school in Winona was just 10 miles away. Winona, however, had organized itself as a separate municipal school within Montgomery County, electing its own board and operating independently of the county’s jurisdiction. Despite this, Winona’s residents were still allowed to vote for the county school board, keeping in power a superintendent who did little to further the educational needs of the county students. On that basis, ACEAR successfully sued in 1999 to invalidate the election of the County Superintendent. The long-term incumbent was defeated in a new election in 2000, and a new candidate was hired.
Unfortunately, the new superintendent believed that Duck Hill Elementary was too expensive to keep open, maintaining that the county could save $900,000 if Duck Hill children were bused 50 miles to Kilmichael Elementary School. This time around, the community was ready. Al White, an African- American school board member backed by ACEAR, had become chairman of the county’s school board, which, by 2001, had a black majority. He worked actively to make the board accessible to the entire county by rotating meetings from school to school. White also opened the budget process to community suggestions and oversight. Responding to parental concern, he kept the question of Duck Hill’s closure off the agenda until the state’s Department of Public Instruction had reviewed the financial numbers. The state estimated that savings derived from closing the school would be only $150,000 a year; it offered to search for ways of keeping the school open. The Duck Hill community promised to waive the school’s sewage fees. Presented with this new data and a unified opposition, the superintendent withdrew her recommendation to close the school for at least a year so that all parties could seek a permanent solution.
Meaningful Learning Opportunities for All Students
The idea of students sidestepping rote school instruction in a quest for meaningful learning has roots in the Mississippi civil rights movement. In the 1960s adult students flocked to “freedom schools” run by young civil rights workers. African Americans not only improved their reading and writing skills but also analyzed the Constitution in preparation for tests required for voter registration. Civil rights activist and mathematician Robert Moses, founder of the Algebra Project and former director of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Mississippi Project, continues this tradition. He and the teachers he has trained show young African Americans how to liberate their minds from rote learning by studying algebra as a gateway to fuller political, economic and educational emancipation. While algebra is frequently not offered in Delta public schools until the junior or senior year of high school, Moses targets middle school students.
Headquartered in Jackson, MS, the Algebra Project inspired parents and middle school students in the Sunflower County town of Indianola to inaugurate the Indianola Math Games League (1994). The idea was to have fun with math while working on leadership and organizing skills. The league had a volunteer staff and a majority student board. Students decided how to run the league and recruited others to participate. Hundreds of students and their parents began collaborating, sharing their concerns and dreams about education. In 1995 the district superintendent tried to shut down the league and exclude it from public school facilities, but the community resisted and he was forced to back down.
In 1996 the Indianola Parent Student Group (IPSG) was spun off from the Math Games League as a separate entity to influence local education policy. The group has focused on equal educational facilities and rights, fighting for a complete science laboratory and new textbooks for the black middle school. The group was instrumental in mobilizing the public and engaging the media to call attention to abuses of power by a new principal at Indianola’s High School, who allowed students to be arrested by local law enforcement at the office secretary’s discretion and permitted public paddlings of students for infractions as minor as not having a pencil.
IPSG also has advocated for more humane treatment for special education students, who were being physically abused for the very behavior that had singled them out as requiring specialized schooling in the first place. (Hyperactive children, for instance, were beaten with heavy wooden paddles because of their inability to sit still for long periods of time.) With help from the Southern Echo staff and other MEWG members, IPSG presented its case to the state’s assistant superintendent of special education and organized a meeting with other MEWG organizations as well as state and local officials. Since then, a monitoring program has been established, IPSG has helped state education officials craft significant passages of a public education accountability law, and special needs children are beginning to get the individualized attention and adaptive technologies they need.
50 Years after Brown: Carrying the Civil Rights Movement Forward
Mississippi Education Working Group organizations are increasingly proposing political redistricting and working the political process both inside and outside the formal system. Southern Echo continues to help as individual grassroots organizations become increasingly able to raise their own funds, organize their own agendas and present their cases at public hearings. But Southern Echo’s help is shifting over time. In the beginning, each group needed to define what it wanted to do and learn to focus specifically on local issues. Now groups are looking beyond their county boundaries as they cope with problems needing broad public attention at regional, state and even national levels. As groups become better organized, Southern Echo’s primary function is to help put organizations in touch with each other.
Fifty years after Brown, equal educational opportunity for all children is not yet a reality in the Mississippi Delta. But, as demonstrated by groups affiliated with MEWG, the fight continues and the hope for change is strong as Mississippi’s rural activists carry the civil rights movement into a new century.