The Southern Poverty Law Center is still awaiting a federal judge’s decision on whether to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges the state fails to provide all Mississippians access to a fair and uniform education as required under an 1869 federal law.
In May, the group filed a lawsuit on behalf of four public school mothers arguing that the effects of decades-old efforts to preserve segregation in Mississippi public schools still exist in today’s education system.
Congress passed the Mississippi’s Readmission Act in 1869, which established conditions for Mississippi to return to the United States after secession. The act stated “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.”
The lawsuit states that a new Mississippi constitution in 1890 and subsequent amendments to the constitution until 1987 violated that condition.
“We are not asking this judge to tell Mississippi how to come into compliance with this obligation,” said Southern Poverty Law Center senior staff attorney Will Bardwell at a coffee forum Thursday. “All we are asking for is a declaration that Mississippi is still obligated to provide the legal rights that Congress required it to maintain nearly 150 years ago.”
The state filed a motion to dismiss the suit in July, arguing that issue raised by the SPLC is political rather than legal, and violates the statute of limitations and the Eleventh Amendment, among other reasons.
The lawsuit stated that 13 of the state’s 19 F-rated school districts during the 2015-16 school year were more than 95 percent African American. All 19 had enrollments of at least 80 percent African American students.
On Friday, Bardwell stressed the suit was not about school funding, but the state’s duty to provide the same education to all students, regardless of geography, race, wealth or other factors.
“All we are asking federal court to do is to reaffirm that these are the obligations Mississippi owes to its schoolchildren,” Bardwell said. “If we are successful, the state will get the first chance to try to figure out how to come into compliance.”
Both parties are currently waiting on U.S. District Court Judge William H. Barbour to rule on the motion.