More than 60 years after the landmark US supreme court ruling that ordered school systems to integrate, the classrooms of a west Mississippi town are still divided by race.

Now, a federal court has ordered the Cleveland School District to fully consolidate its majority black middle and high schools with historically white schools, finally ending a five-decade-long legal battle over integrating black and white students in the town.

On Friday, US District Judge Debra Brown rejected two alternatives proposed by the school district, arguing they were unconstitutional. She agreed with the Justice Department that the only way to achieve desegregation is to combine Cleveland's secondary schools for the first time in the district's 100-year history.

The case has been navigating the judicial system for more than 50 years, filed about 11 years after the historic Brown v BOE case in 1954, which declared that "separate but equal has no place" in public schools.

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But Friday's ruling, which follows decades of collaborative work between parents, teachers, coaches and community leaders fighting to consolidate the schools in order to bridge the divide, has now been met with resistance from the students.

Cleveland School District lawyer Jamie Jacks fears the plan will spur a white flight out of the public schools. "Unfortunately, when you do a mandatory reassignment plan, the results statistically tell us it's not good in terms of maintaining diversity," Ms Jacks told CBS.

The front of East Side High School in Cleveland, Mississippi, which could now possibly undergo a name and mission change. Photo / AP
The front of East Side High School in Cleveland, Mississippi, which could now possibly undergo a name and mission change. Photo / AP

The "Magnolia State" has a painful history with racial segregation. A deadly riot broke out in 1962 when James Meredith attempted to be the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. Education and civil rights advocates attempting to consolidate the schools in the mid-sixties were frequently shut down by white protesters.

With a population of 12,000, Cleveland has a school district of 3700 students and 12 schools in total. Approximately 66 per cent of the students are black, 30 per cent are white and 4 per cent are Asian or Hispanic.

The town is home to Delta State University and sits in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which became one of the richest cotton-growing areas in the US before the American Civil War. Wealthy plantation owners along the Mississippi River relied on the labour of black slaves.

The abandoned Illinois Central Railroad tracks run through the town, dividing it both geographically and racially. Parents have long described the stigma of living on "the wrong side of the tracks" and having to send their children to all-black schools, which are traditionally viewed as offering fewer educational opportunities.

Mack Sanders of Boyle, Mississippi, a small community outside of Cleveland, is a plaintiff in the 51-year desegregation lawsuit. Mr Sanders said he supports the consolidation. Photo / AP
Mack Sanders of Boyle, Mississippi, a small community outside of Cleveland, is a plaintiff in the 51-year desegregation lawsuit. Mr Sanders said he supports the consolidation. Photo / AP

"Half of Cleveland's schools - the schools on the east side of the railroad tracks - are all black or virtually all black," the federal court opinion read.

"The majority of the schools on the west side of the railroad tracks, including Cleveland High School, Margaret Green Junior High School, and Parks Elementary School, enrol a student body that is at least 20 per cent more white than the student population."

Quoindedrick Fields, a student at East Side High School said he was opposed to change. "It's this side of the highway versus that side of the highway. And it's just - it's been a rival for a long time," he explained.

Margaret Swartzfager, whose children attend Cleveland High, told CBS: "If the parents would step aside and let the kids feel their way through it, the kids are going to deal with it a lot better than the parents will."

The school board is now considering appealing the court's decision to desegregate the schools, arguing it will "limit the choices of both parents and students." The board believes they have made big strides in recent decades and says the current system provides "excellent educational opportunities to all students."

In her ruling, Judge Brown gave both parties 21 days to come up with a proposed timeline for the latest integration plan. She wrote in her 96-page summary: "The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education. Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the District to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden.

"This failure, whether born of good faith, bad faith, or some combination of the two, has placed Cleveland in the unenviable position of operating under a desegregation order long after schools in bastions of segregation like Boston, Jackson, and Mobile have been declared unitary."

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement that the decision "serves as a reminder to districts that delaying desegregation obligations is both unacceptable and unconstitutional.

"This victory creates new opportunities for the children of Cleveland to learn, play and thrive together."

Cleveland is one of 177 school systems across the US still involved in major desegregation cases. Almost half are in just two states, Alabama and Mississippi.