Desegregating A Mississippi School District

This week, a small Mississippi county was ordered to desegregate its public schools. The Justice Department had claimed that the Walthall County schools used a system of student transfers to create "white schools" and "black schools." Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, discusses the case with Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, more and more states are looking at ways to tie teacher pay to the performance of their students, and to fire teachers who are not measuring up. We'll take a look at two contentious battles that are going on right now, in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to tell you about a story from Mississippi, where the Justice Department says, school officials in rural Walthall County have been intentionally grouping African-American students into all black classrooms and allowing white students to transfer to the county's only majority white school. This week, a federal judge ordered officials to stop that practice and to bar routine student transfers.

With us now to tell us more about that is Thomas Perez. He's the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights. I want to mention we asked the superintendent of Walthall schools to join us, but he declined. So, Tom Perez, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. THOMAS PEREZ (Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Right): It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Tell us, what prompted the suit and how did this matter come to the attention of the Justice Department?

Mr. PEREZ: There had been a longstanding series of problems. And in this particular case, there were local advocates who are fighting for their children, heroically, and they saw some problems, they brought them to our attention, and we made a request to the school district and things went on from there.

MARTIN: So, is the issue here that white students are routinely transferring out to schools that they would be expected to attend, to a school that, for whatever reason, became the majority white school in the county; but also, that within schools, the argument is that white students have been grouped into certain classrooms.

Mr. PEREZ: There were two issues going on here, Michel. And let me try to explain it. There are two districts within the district. There's Tylertown and there's Salem. Salem is 51 percent white, 48 percent African-American. And what was happening was, the school district was allowing white students from Tylertown to transfer over to Salem. So, Salem was the white schools. Tylertown was the black school. And there was no reason, no justification for these transfers.

And then as a result, Salem went from being 51 percent white to being 66 percent white. Tylertown went from being 68 percent African-American, to being 77 percent African-American. And to make matters worse, at Tylertown, the remaining white students were grouped, all too frequently, in all white classrooms. And then African-Americans were grouped in all African-American classrooms. So, almost half of the elementary school kids in Tylertown were in an all black classroom. And that is wrong.

I mean, this is the poster child for why we need a civil rights division. And this is a district that, frankly, still appears to have issues with Brown vs. Board - 55 years, or so, later.

MARTIN: As I understand it, that the Walthall County school district didn't even file a response to the case. But I would like to know if in your discussions with them, did they offer any justification for what they were doing?

Mr. PEREZ: We made a demand. Stop the transfer practices and have random assignments in the elementary schools. We reached an agreement and the school board rejected it.

MARTIN: On what basis?

Mr. PEREZ: They didn't like it. And as a result, we went to court. This is not a consent decree, in this case. This is a court order. We were unable to obtain a consent decree. Contrast that with Louisiana, where we've had a decree in Monroe City since 1965. Egregious set of circumstances there, as well. It's an 87 percent African-American school district, two high schools. One is 100 percent African-American, one is 43 percent white. At the 43 percent white school, there are 70 gifted and talented, AP courses. At the 100 percent African-American school, there are five.

And I think every kid is gifted and talented. And it's incumbent on school districts to draw out those gifts and talents. We reached a consent decree in that particular case.

MARTIN: Which means that the school officials are agreeing to a certain set of steps...

Mr. PEREZ: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...that they will engage in. What you're saying is, here in Mississippi, in this case, you could never reach agreement with school officials to take certain steps.

Mr. PEREZ: That's correct.

MARTIN: Let me just ask you this, though, because this whole question of where students attend school and which school they attend, in a lot of places, is a very, you know, sensitive issue with parents. What convinced the department that these transfers were race-based, as opposed to based on some other factor?

Mr. PEREZ: The data. You look at the transfers, it's overwhelmingly white students from Tylertown, going to Salem. And that's why Salem is the white school, Tylertown is the black school. They were running a dual track system. And then, to make matters worse, in Tylertown, which was becoming increasingly African-American, there was the within school segregation. And that's wrong. That is a textbook violation of Title 4 of the Civil Rights Act.

MARTIN: Why is that, in your view, so egregious?

Mr. PEREZ: It's separate and unequal. It is exactly what the judge in 1970 -and by the way, the judge has been on this case, I believe he was either a Johnson appointee. He's a senior judge who has seen he's been to a lot of rodeos and is it relates to this case, regrettably. And he has seen a consistent history of recalcitrance on the part of this district. They used busing to attempt to assist white students to leave Tyletown over the last few years. The state had to actually threaten transportation funding in order to stop that practice.

So there has been, simply, a decade's long pattern and practice of flaunting a longstanding desegregation order. And that's why we need a civil rights division. That's one of dozens of reasons why we need a civil rights division.

MARTIN: What message would you want other school officials to draw from the pursuit of this case and the department's sort of aggressive pursuit of court order in this case? Clearly you want to send a signal not to just to these officials, but to others. What message are you trying to send here?

Mr. PEREZ: A number of messages. Number one: the civil rights division is open for business. We will vigorously enforce Title 4. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has many different titles. Title 4 refers to equal educational opportunity for all. We are partnering in a number of jurisdictions with the Department of Education office for civil rights, and we will stand up for every child in America to ensure that he or she can get the quality education that he or she deserves.

And we will work, collaboratively, with these districts. We attempted to forge an agreement in Walthall. We were unsuccessful because the school district rejected the agreement and that's why we had to go to court.

MARTIN: And I want to emphasize, once again, that we did reach out to school officials in Walthall County. We would very much appreciate their perspective on this, but they declined to join us for this conversation.

Thomas Perez is the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thomas Perez, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. PEREZ: It's a pleasure to be here.

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