Clarion Ledger Interview Article on ClarionLedger.comJana Hoops, Clarion Ledger correspondent
Three graduates of Jackson’s Murrah High School class of 1973 come together in a new book to describe the “social experiment” they thought was going to work to bring the races together
through school desegregation in Mississippi in the ‘70s — but, in many places, including Jackson, it didn’t.
In the University Press of Mississippi’s “Lines Were Drawn: Remembering Court-Ordered Integration at a Mississippi High School,” Teena Horn, Alan Huffman and John Griffin Jones include contributions from more than 60 students, teachers and school administrators who share the good and the bad of a time and circumstance unprecedented and never repeated in the state’s history.
The trio explains how the experience influenced them, and why it still matters so much.
How did “Lines Were Drawn” materialize?
Horn: The story began, for me, as an 11th-grade student in Mrs. Dianne Canterbury’s American history class. I presented an “individualized study” on racial relations, which somehow caught the attention of Billy Skelton of the Clarion-Ledger. He wrote a story published in the April 18, 1972, paper. I kept a scrapbook of my time at Murrah with stories I wrote about my experience with integration and being a Murrah cheerleader. There was always urgency — God within me saying, ‘Share this story,’ –— but I was busy running a business and raising a family, and left writing in dormancy.
Then, Johnny (Jones) sent out an email in 2009, talking about our high school experience and exasperation with Republicans. I fired an email back, and we argued about politics for a while, and then decided to write a book. So, the project started as a political tiff between Johnny and me. We shared writings. He did an amazing treatise of the historical, legal and geographical background of our hometown that only a lifetime Jacksonian and master of history and the law could bring forth. We decided to search for other accounts; I ran an ad in The Clarion-Ledger which can be viewed in the book. We asked for the help of Alan Huffman, the experienced author of our 1973 Murrah High school class, and our 11th-grade English teacher, Claiborne Barksdale. We gathered more participants as explained in our book.
This question is more appropriate for Teena and Johnny because it was their brainchild, but it basically started as an argument between the two of them. It eventually became apparent that the oral history that grew from that argument warranted a book, which was something I had experience with, so I got involved.
Jones: In summer of 2009 I read a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that just set me off. The justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts who like us was born in 1955, basically pitched the whole purpose and legacy of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and said the Constitution imposed no duty to achieve racial equality in the schools. It was such a flip-flop of priorities, such a warping of history, reflected such unearned cynicism about the very issues that dominated and directed our education and experiences in the Jackson Public Schools and at Murrah, it made me think that all we went through and sacrificed for, black and white, was pointless. The Supreme Court was essentially saying that the high purposes placed before us, and that we achieved against all odds, didn’t matter 40 years later. So I wrote the email to my classmates. Teena responded with a good defense to my whining, and the rest grew out of that.
How is the book organized and who are contributors?
Horn: Including the authors of the book, there were 63 contributors. Actually, more folks contributed, but some backed out at the point of publishing, and many classmates expressed a fear of having their name associated with a book about race. We did our best to pull in a broad spectrum of opinion, but this was a voluntary project. The contributors are generally from the 1970s classes including former teachers, students, parents, and a recent school board member. The book is organized on a time line, from our childhood experience through elementary, junior high, high school and then from the perspective of our class today, as to what we learned.
Huffman: We gave the contributors several options. Some chose to submit essays, others to answer a questionnaire. In a few cases, we conducted interviews. It was not a scientific survey. For starters, we didn’t have contact information for all of our former classmates, and those who contributed did so voluntarily. We then compiled the information by theme, and each of the editors wrote of their own experiences and edited individual chapters. We were always mindful that we were three white people compiling a group memoir about integration, and that everyone’s perspectives needed to be represented.
Jones: As I recall, we came up with a table of contents that presented the stories chronologically, assigned chapters to each of the three of us, with Teena left to do the hard job of editing the interviews and essays for the best parts for each of the chapters. Alan did that too in his epilogue. The contributors were everybody who wrote in to respond to our ads and mail-outs, which targeted the Murrah classes from 1970 – 1975. Most of the contributors came from the 1973 graduating class because we maintained closer contact with them. Teena, Alan, Claiborne Barksdale and I also picked several older folks we wanted to interview. We started with Gov. William Winter, Murrah Principal Jim Merritt, went through the administrators, coaches and teachers, both in our time and later, and Teena took it from there.
Tell me about the title of the book.
Horn: We have maps in the book, courtesy of The Clarion Ledger, which depict the lines that were drawn and established by the federal courts and federal employees to order students living in Jackson to comply with new school zoning regulations. These lines changed yearly during my tenure as a student.
Huffman: Our high school experience was an outgrowth of the way the district lines were drawn to integrate the school system in Jackson. City officials were at odds with the courts over how to do that, and as a result the lines were frequently redrawn, which had a profound effect on everyone’s lives.
John, you say in the book that, at the time you were about to be entering high school, your family supported integration but not desegregation. Explain what that means.
Jones: “Integration” was the goal of all of it, the hope, the aspiration, the condition in which black and white would come together in peace and prosperity, first in school. After that, after black and white Mississippians started first grade and completed high school together, the rest would be a cinch and integration would follow in all facets of our lives. I still think that is right and that “integration” is a worthy goal.
I say in the book that by the late ‘60s my parents and their friends believed in “integration in the abstract,” meaning they believed in and were willing to sacrifice convenience and expectations for the goal of “integration.” But really by the end of the ‘70s, the “integration” hope had largely worn out or been replaced and the moment was lost. The concept of putting people together for any societal purpose or the greater good was freighted with bad, politically motivated connotations like “affirmative action” and “welfare.” Again, the focus was on the remedy and not the problem or the goal, but it was very smart politics, and it worked, especially in the South.
“Desegregation” was the methodology chosen to achieve “integration.” That methodology drew deeply felt objections across the South that only grew more strident with each passing year of the ‘70s. The problem really was, and is, that when the desegregation plans were thrown out, re-segregation followed, first in the South and now across the country. The statistics are incredibly disheartening, especially, or maybe only, to us.
Everybody, including me, objects to the radical “desegregation” methodology utilized in those days. Nobody likes having a societal goal, as worthy as it may be, crammed down their throats. The 1969-70 orders of the 5th Circuit really required too much too soon, and it drove most whites to the fight-or-flight response. On the other hand . . . the federal courts allowed 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 for the local school boards in the South to figure it out, and nothing happened beyond the very beginnings of token integration. If the roles were reversed, I doubt whites would have tolerated that much delay by the state in providing what the Constitution said was ours by reason of our citizenship.
The experiences you went through as young high school students in Jackson in the ‘70s are almost impossible for younger people to grasp now. You are saying that there was a brief time that desegregation was successful in Jackson Public Schools. How do you explain that it lasted at all for just a short while, and then, as you say, failed in Jackson?
Horn: In my view it was a success for some of us, particularly those who left the city for other parts of the state and nation deciding to send our children to public schools. My children were in a fully integrated system from kindergarten through graduation from high school.
Huffman: I think most of us knew we were on the cutting edge of something, whatever our reasons for attending public schools. We weren’t on any sort of mission, we were just high school students in the throes of major social upheaval, and there was something both daunting and exciting about that. It wasn’t a racial Shangri-La, but neither was it the disaster it could have been. By and large, we just managed to get along, and looking back, it’s apparent that we experienced something unique together.
Not surprisingly, there are different views on why school integration ultimately failed in Jackson. Over time, most white students left the school system, either to attend private academies or because their families moved to the suburbs. But to say integration failed does not mean the school system itself failed, only that it is no longer racially diverse. The question of how well it worked during our time is also open to debate, but there’s no doubt the schools were truly integrated then, and it went surprisingly well given the state’s history of racial conflict.
Jones: Alan, Teena and I disagree about this. I say it worked in our time because black and white kids were around each other long enough — three-and-a-half years — in close enough proximity to give each other the right to our own individuality, our own strengths and weaknesses, in settings where there were no filters or monitors to direct our responses to each other. That helped us get to know each other personally and treat each other just like we treated contemporaries of our own race.
Coach Freddie Lee told us there were two points when whites made what looks in retrospect like a collective decision to give up on JPS and Murrah and depart permanently. The first one happened during the very early days of radical desegregation in February 1970, supplemented by the withdrawal of more whites in response to even more disruptive desegregation ordered by the 5th Circuit in the summer of 1970 through the end of that year. The second happened around 1977-78. Coach said that, for reasons he never understood, white kids quit coming to Murrah, white athletes particularly. The shame of it is that Murrah really had come back to dominance in sports and extracurricular activities in the five years of successful integration from 1970-75. The coaches and teachers were predicting then that most white kids would eventually come back. It didn’t happen that way.
But the prediction (that white students would return) was inaccurate because it underestimated the hard-headed determination of Mississippians when faced with federal intervention of any type. We really don’t ever quit fighting — unless we can move away. So white Jacksonians moved away and still are at a rate of about 20,000 white families per decade since 1990.
White flight worked then, and it works now. Splendid public schools rose up in small towns that were in the path of white flight to the north and east of the city limits: places like Madison Central High School, Ridgeland High, Germantown, Northwest Rankin, Pearl and Brandon High Schools, all great public schools in Mississippi that came into being to handle the massive influx of former Jacksonians fleeing the city. Like all huge societal issues, the truth is not all good or bad, not all one thing or another, but I think this much is certain: White flight led to permanent abandonment of the JPS.
Politically, I also think the rising conservative movement led by Ronald Reagan, coupled with the perceived ineffectiveness of Jimmy Carter and the old Democratic coalitions, had a whole lot to do with it. To understand the success and failure of desegregation, you have to understand that extended historical context.
Why do you think this “failure” has continued and persisted for so long in the metro area?
Horn: Again, I do not live in Jackson, anymore, though much of my family does, but I do read the Jackson papers. In my opinion, I would hypothesize that many northeast Jacksonians come from successful families who want their children to succeed financially in society and understand the competitive nature of the job market.
Kids need to do well on the ACT and get a top education to get into the few slots that professional schools offer for admission. The papers say that several private academies in Jackson have good overall average-class-scores on the ACT; that fact is going to pull students in. Another reason could be that parents want their children to be able to participate in competitive sports. Public schools may have more rivalry in this aspect than private schools.
I think the answer lies in making public schools more attractive, in the sense of offering more gifted programs, ACT prep classes and opportunities that would pull students and parents back into the system they are already paying taxes to support. Personally, I expected my children’s school to be safe and good, because I was paying property taxes to fund that education.
Huffman: Again, there are lots of perspectives on this. Although the city and state have made significant strides regarding race, most people gravitate toward situations in which they hold the power of a majority. Add to that continuing problems with racial prejudice, with school discipline and with crime in Jackson, and integration slowly but surely collapsed. It’s still possible to get a good education in the Jackson schools, but the students don’t get the kind of cultural exposure we had, which, in my view, provided a more complete education.
Jones: It failed for so long because the methods chosen to do it were so intrusive and ineffective, and the methods chosen to battle desegregation — chiefly, white flight — were so successful, that the chance we saw at Murrah for successful integration was lost. It failed because we never had any political leadership to show us the way, with the hugely significant exception of Gov. William Winter’s Education Reform Act of 1982 and his example and leadership even today.
And it failed because the federal courts focused on the desegregation methodology instead of what that methodology was intended to accomplish: real integration in all aspects of our lives. Re-segregation in the suburbs filled the vacuum.
Mainly, though, I think it failed because we have never found anything to replace and update the best legacies of the ‘60s: equality, liberty as a substantive right of individuals, freedom and racial justice. What we experienced at Murrah was just a good start in achieving broad societal goals that themselves lost momentum and then interest just as quickly as those societal goals rose to prominence in 1969 and 1970.
You graduated from Murrah High School 42 years ago. How did those experiences from so long ago affect you psychologically, philosophically and practically, even today?
Horn: Our book has a chapter called, “Life Lessons of the Murrah Experience.” Some of us took what we learned at Murrah with us on our journeys through life. As a health care professional, I serve my community through the practice of dentistry and by supporting local factions to improve our city. My children went to public schools and had friends of many races.
Huffman: It opened my eyes. I’d grown up in a segregated world, and integration helped me see the common ground I shared with people of other races and backgrounds. It also taught me how to learn from and adjust to profound change. What happened afterward, unfortunately, illustrates that some people aren’t interested in adjusting, or else they adjust by running away. It’s much easier to isolate yourself or to take offense at different views than to try to come to terms with them. The beauty of the book is that it looks at our experience from a diversity of perspectives, not all of which are in agreement, which is in keeping with our overall experience.
Jones: I say in the book that everything about the way I respond to things “psychologically, philosophically and practically” today, at age 60, is largely the product of what we went through during massive desegregation. It formed my political philosophy, what side of the fence I always wanted to be on and am after all these years, and what I believe are the obligations and responsibilities of our common citizenship. And I don’t think you can read the book, or any single excerpt, without concluding that it had a similar effect on all of us. The difference is just one of degree.
It matters that it succeeded because, as far as I know from researching this pretty hard, the five years of the integration movement is the only time in Mississippi history when white and black citizens were forced together in such close proximity over such an extended period. If we are given time and provocation to deal with each other as individuals and not as members of some stereotype we learned from those who don’t know, we will come together.
And yes, things change and people adjust. We have a long history of adjustment to injustice and mistreatment of black people in particular. And attitudes have improved significantly. The question is whether we should adjust and accommodate the re-segregation of the public schools and our apartheid system of secondary education in Jackson.
Do you ever feel like something should be done about the fact that it failed so soundly? That there’s something you want to do about it? What, if any, lessons can be learned, or did you learn, from it all?
Horn: I learned to be an encourager. If you want something to be different or better, step out there and try to make a difference. Have faith that you can change the status quo, be it slowly or quickly.
Huffman: I don’t know what could be done about the racial makeup of the schools. The courts tried to force integration, and it failed. The problem is, what happened in the Jackson schools has happened to various degrees all over the country. Society is increasingly polarized today. For that reason, I think it’s important to show that it’s possible to coexist and even to become friends with people of different backgrounds, as we did. If it could happen in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1970s, it could happen anywhere. You just have to have the will to do it.
Jones: I fail the hypocrisy test about wanting to do something about our apartheid high schools in Jackson. I have laid out some of the lessons I learned here and in the book. But on the fundamental questions you ask, I believe this strongly:
Number one, integration as we saw it at Murrah in those years is still the future in this country. We have accommodated the failure of desegregation in the South and in the nation for over 30 years now, but that doesn’t mean the embarrassing reality of re-segregation is the best we can do. If our history is the best guide, this issue will rise again in the extended future. The unfairness, hypocrisy and lack of “equal protection of the laws” is just too obvious to represent the future of our educational system.
Two, what we learned at Murrah was that there is no difference between African-American and white individual Mississippians that really matter. There is vast difference in the way the historical mistreatment of black Mississippians is treated today, and thus of the obligations we owe to each other because of that history. Those differences of opinions largely define our politics. But we know better when it comes to real people living in real time dealing with a bad past and a future with hope that all Mississippians share, black and white.
Teena Horn, Alan Huffman and John Jones will sign copies of “Lines Were Drawn” at 5 p.m. Thursday at Lemuria Books in Jackson.