Fifty years after Freedom Summer, Mississippi education remains separate and unequal | Rethink Mississippi

By Jake McGraw

  • Fifty years after Freedom Summer, Mississippi education remains separate and unequal
Myrtle School, Union County, 1956 (courtesy of Bill and Rita Bender)

Fifty years ago this month, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation in all public facilities. The Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating public schools was already a decade old. Nevertheless, nearly all of Mississippi’s schools still operated under the pretense of “separate but equal.”

It was obvious to anyone who cared to look that Mississippi was more interested in separation than equality. White schools had the appearance of modernity, even if they often lacked the quality of more affluent states. Black schools, meanwhile, were often rustic and ramshackle. One-room schoolhouses had not yet gone extinct in some areas. The state spent 50 percent more on white education than black education, while districts supplemented white school funding with an average of four dollars for every dollar spent on black schools. Disparities in some districts reached 80 to one.

Most white Mississippians would have sooner abandoned their schools than open them to African Americans. Under the specter of integration, the state’s constitutional provisions for education were stripped bare by public referendum and the Legislature won the ability to abolish Mississippi’s public school system if necessary.

Against that backdrop, thousands of college students and civil rights activists from around the country flocked to Mississippi in June 1964 to take part in the Mississippi Summer Project, better known as Freedom Summer.

Freedom Summer is best remembered for its voter registration drives, or — more tragically — for the murders of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County. But many of the volunteers came to battle white supremacy with blackboards and chalk, teaching black elementary and high school students (and, often, their parents) in 41 “Freedom Schools” across the state.

The Freedom Schools gave more than 3,000 students the chance to study reading, math, geography, history — the education that they were systematically denied by their native state. The students also learned about their democratic rights that had been suppressed on the grounds of “illiteracy” or “intellectual inferiority.”

This year, thanks to the inclusion of civil rights history and concepts in Mississippi’s K-12 standards, students of all races are supposed to learn the history of Freedom Summer. They should learn about literacy tests, sit-ins, and firehoses. They should learn about White Citizens’ Councils and the bloody integration of the University of Mississippi.

But the majority of Mississippi’s students will learn that history in classrooms comprised overwhelmingly by members of their own race. The experience level of their teachers, the age of their textbooks, and the graduation rate of their schools will all be strongly correlated with the color of the faces in the room.

To be fair, several things have. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education decision brought about immediate desegregation in 1969. The Education Reform Act of 1982, signed by Governor William Winter, created universal kindergarten and professionalized the state’s educational leadership. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program of 1997 established a funding benchmark for the Legislature and provided for a more equitable allocation to districts with high concentrations of poverty.

Each of these acts made significant strides to expand and equalize the provision of public education. Their collective effect has been to repurpose a system built to preserve white supremacy to one that is facially color-neutral. That progress should not be minimized.

Yet the state of Mississippi has never sought to fully restore the educational opportunity that it deliberately deprived for generations of black citizens. Consequently, nearly every measure of academic achievement is still stratified by race.

New Albany Elementary, Union County, 1956 (courtesy of Bill and Rita Bender)

More than one-fourth of Mississippi public schools are at least 90 percent black. Another tenth are at least 90 percent white. And, just as in 1964, students in those identifiably black schools often receive an inferior education. The “black schools” were three times more likely to be rated F than A or B in the 2012-13 school year. Meanwhile, three-fourths of the “white schools” were rated A or B, and none was rated lower than a C.

After the removal of de jure racial segregation, the operative ingredient for the continued hierarchy became race’s incestuous relationship with poverty. Fifty-two percent of Mississippi’s black children grow up below the poverty line; 19 percent of white children face the same plight.

Low-income children start behind and rarely get the chance to catch up. One of the most famous studies on the subject found that children who grow up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words during the first four years of life than high-income peers. Closing the gap is nearly impossible without serious intervention. By the sixth grade, it is estimated that wealthy students will have spent 6,000 more hours on educational activities than students from low-income families.

In 2013, Mississippi became the last state in the South to put public money into pre-kindergarten programs, a proven method of reducing the early childhood skills deficit. But meager initial funding has only extended high-quality pre-k access to 6 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. A promised ramp-up in future years is subject to the whims of a parsimonious Legislature.

For students across the income spectrum, research shows that the socioeconomic status of their peers can have just as great of an impact on their own academic achievement. Given that railroad tracks still split white and black sections of many Mississippi towns, black children are nearly five times more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 30 percent or higher.The schools in those neighborhoods reflect the underlying demographics. The majority of Mississippi’s black students attend a school with an extreme concentration of poverty, an impediment to academic success than no student should be forced to bear.

Among the state’s 50 top-rated A and B districts in 2011-12, 51 percent of students qualified for free lunches due to low family income. Only three had a majority-black student body. In the 57 D and F districts, 84 percent of students qualified for free lunches. All but seven were majority-black.

These statistics paint a distressing portrait of entrenched inequity over the past half-century – inequities that will persist until the state of Mississippi makes the commitment to give every child, regardless of background, the ability to succeed. This year, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, is an appropriate time to start.

Jake McGraw is the editor of Rethink Mississippi and policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute. A native of Oxford, Jake studied public policy and economics at the University of Mississippi and economic history at the University of Oxford. He currently resides in Jackson. You can contact Jake at and follow him on Twitter @jameskmcgraw.

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