JACKSON, Miss. (CN) – Mississippi’s schools are so bad they violate the promises the state made after the Civil War to be readmitted to the Union, parents of four black elementary school students said in a federal lawsuit Tuesday.
Represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, lead plaintiff Indigo Williams said she “seeks to bring the State of Mississippi into compliance with its federal obligation under the Readmission Act to protect the ‘schools rights and privileges of its children.”
The1868 Mississippi Constitution obligated the state to maintain public schools and ensure that school-age former slaves and their descendants “would receive an education equal to that received by white students.”
However, “Since 1890, when Mississippi rewrote its Constitution in order to reestablish white supremacy, Mississippi has violated the terms of its readmission,” according to the second sentence of the 41-page lawsuit. As a result, African American students still do not receive an education equal to that received by white students.
In 1860, 55 percent of the population of Mississippi was slaves – roughly 436,630 people.
In 1861, after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Mississippi seceded from the Union. In its “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union,” the state said plainly: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest in the world.”
The four plaintiff mothers in Tuesday’s lawsuit have children in Raines Elementary School in Jackson and Webster Elementary in Yazoo City, both of which are rated F by the Mississippi Department of Education.
“The reason for its lawsuit is simple: ‘Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society,’” the complaint states, quoting the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Since 1890, Mississippi has repeatedly amended its education clause as a way to “systematically and deliberately deprive African Americans of the educational rights granted to all Mississippi school children by the 1868 Constitution,” according to the complaint.
Lead counsel Will Bardwell, with the SPLC, said at a Tuesday news conference in Jackson: “Today we are 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. 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.”
Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey told Mississippi Today: “It’s a very interesting argument, but I don’t think it would be a victory to say you get exactly as much education as you did in 1870.”
Steffey told the online daily magazine that the argument seems to hinge on the term “uniform,” but that “a system of schools can be free and uniform but also terrible. Uniform is not the same thing as excellent.”
Bardwell, in his statements, seemed to disagree.
“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.
He said that majority-black schools and districts in Mississippi are typically also low-rated schools.
Of the state’s 19 F-rated school districts, 13 are more than 95 percent African American. All 19 school districts are predominantly African American, with 80 percent of the student bodies comprised of black students.
“Segregated [schools] were and are inferior schools and we still have not fixed them in 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education,” said Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the education clause in the state constitution violates the Readmission Act, that the 1890, 1934, 1960 and 1987 revised versions of Section 201 of the state constitution were void ab initio, and that Article VIII, Section 1 of the Constitution of 1868 remains legally binding, plus costs of suit and other relief the court deems just and appropriate.
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.
The defendants did not immediately reply to emailed requests for comment Tuesday.