Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, announces a federal lawsuit challenging unequal opportunities for students in majority black schools in the state. Credit: Mississippi Today

The effects of decades-old efforts to preserve segregation in Mississippi public schools are still lingering in today’s education system, the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

When Congress passed Mississippi’s Readmission Act in 1869, the conditions under which the state could return to the United States after secession included “that the constitution of Mississippi shall never be so amended or changed as to deprive any citizen or class of citizens of the United States of the school rights and privileges secured by the constitution of said State.”

However, a new Mississippi constitution in 1890 and subsequent amendments to the constitution until 1987 violated that condition, the lawsuit states.

“Today we’re asking the U.S. District Court to enforce the Readmission Act to hold Mississippi to its legal obligation and to order that Mississippi begin providing children all the rights guaranteed to them by this federal law,” Will Bardwell, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said at a press conference in Jackson announcing the lawsuit. “At the heart of those rights was the guarantee that Mississippi’s public education system would be uniform — one that provides every child in every corner of the state the same opportunities.”

The lawsuit was filed in federal court by the SPLC on behalf of four mothers with students at Raines Elementary School in Jackson and Webster Elementary in Yazoo City. Both the Jackson Public School District and the Yazoo City Municipal School District are rated “F” by the Mississippi Department of Education.

The defendants are Gov. Phil Bryant, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright and the State Board of Education. Requests for comments from the defendants were not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey said the SPLC’s approach is creative.

Matt Steffey, professor, Mississippi College School of Law Credit: Mississippi College School of Law

“It’s a very interesting argument,” he said. ” … But I don’t think it would be a victory to say you get exactly as much education as you did in 1870.”

Steffey explained that the argument seems to hinge on the term “uniform,” but there is no legal definition of the word that has a specific meaning in the context of public schools.

“A system of schools can be free and uniform but also terrible,” he said. “Uniform is not the same thing as excellent.”

Bardwell and the SPLC pointed to the condition of majority black schools and districts in the state. Thirteen of the state’s 19 F-rated school districts are more than 95 percent African American. All 19 have enrollments of at least 80 percent African American students.

“If you’re a black child growing up in the state of Mississippi, the quality of your education is largely determined by whether your classmates are mostly black or mostly white,” Bardwell said.

Indigo Williams, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and the mother of a 1st grader at Raines Elementary, tearfully described paint chipping off the wall, a playground infested with snakes and fire ants and flooding in the school building. She said her son and his classmates have been served expired food in the cafeteria at lunch, and there are no extracurricular activities available there.

“I know that he is not the only one struggling and uninspired by his school,” Williams said. “My son’s school building feels like a jail.”

Precious Hughes, another plaintiff and parent of a kindergartner at Raines, echoed Williams.

“How am I as a mother supposed to answer (her daughter) when she asks me why she can’t attend a better school?” Hughes said.

The lawsuit specifically asks for a declaratory judgment finding that the education clause in the state constitution violates the Readmission Act and for an award of attorney’s cost and fees.

Steffey said that despite the claim in the lawsuit, it seems to relate directly to school funding.

“I think it’s hard not to read this as about funding. … It says ‘Hey, if you can do all this without spending any more money, more power to you,’ but I think that’s fanciful,” Steffey continued.

“Segregated schools were and are inferior schools and we still have not fixed them 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education,” said Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Steffey pointed out the conservative nature of federal judges in the South.

“If a federal court ruled for the plaintiffs, it would mean deep and longstanding involvement of the courts” telling Mississippi how to run its schools, he explained. “Courts are very reluctant to be the general supervisors of school districts.”

The SPLC announced last week it is filing a lawsuit challenging the mid-year budget cuts to public schools made by Gov. Bryant. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of two Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Bryant Clark and Sen. John Horhn.

SPLC also is involved in an ongoing lawsuit that argues the state’s funding of its public charter schools is unconstitutional.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.