Greenville, Mississippi—They called it “River City,” singled out half a century ago as a beacon of hope for school integration in the South. Authors of the landmark civil rights–era Coleman Report, a massive federal survey of US educational inequality, concluded that if desegregation were to work anywhere in the Deep South, it would be in this town, an oasis of tolerance and pragmatic gentility in the Mississippi Delta, the blackest, poorest, “most southern place on earth.”
The Coleman Report became legendary, fueling and informing debates that are still raging today. But no one gave away River City’s identity, or kept track to see if its promise came true. Did the town’s well-intentioned integration plan succeed in bringing a deeply divided community together to improve education for both black and white students?
The town, it turns out, was Greenville, an unusually diverse community of blacks, whites, Chinese, Creoles, and Jews, as well as immigrants from Lebanon and Syria. Home to more than 12,000 public-school children, the district was the first in Mississippi to defy the governor and voluntarily offer real choice for white and black children to enroll in each other’s schools.
This was not Grenada, Mississippi, where angry white residents beat black elementary-school children with pipes and fists for trying to enroll in that town’s token “freedom of choice” plan. Nor was it Yazoo City, where the White Citizen’s Council strong-armed 53 black citizens for signing an NAACP petition endorsing integrated schools. Some were fired from their jobs, others evicted from their homes; all were refused service at the town’s white-owned grocery stores. Greenville took pride in its reputation as a city apart.
By 1977, the US Civil Rights Commission declared Greenville’s desegregation to be a near-total success, not just in deeds but also in hearts and minds. “Good leadership and good will” had created a district where “not one school is left with an all-black student body.” A few bubbles of trouble percolated. About 2,000 students had left by then. A newly opened private academy called the Washington School had claimed about 15 percent of the white children. The black community expressed dismay that all symbols of black accomplishment—plaques, citations, trophies, and class pictures—were removed and tossed aside when the all-black Coleman High School was converted into an integrated middle school. Still, the commission held, the majority of Greenville’s citizens—planters, business folks, community members—all understood that they were better off with diverse, unified public schools.
What happened next in Greenville, a de-evolution of sorts, is a lesson for another Mississippi town, Cleveland, now wrestling with a federal court order to merge its historically black and white schools—and a warning siren for the rest of the nation.