Prior to the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mississippi had only three non-church-run private schools. However, in the wake of the Court’s ruling that segregated school systems were unconstitutional, many white opponents of integration started private schools, particularly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and after the Court’s 1969 decision in Alexander v. Holmes County mandated that Mississippi school systems implement desegregation plans by 1970. Since the late 1970s and 1980s, a growing number of private schools have emphasized that their goals have more to do with religion and discipline than with white supremacy.
As early as 1954, while leaders in other parts of the South contemplated shutting down their school systems in response to the Brown decision, some Mississippi legislators and educators began discussing the possibility of government support for private schools. But only in the mid-1960s did the state have a private school movement. Following the example provided by several other southern states, the Mississippi legislature in 1964 passed a law creating tuition grants of $185 per student for students to attend nonreligious private schools. Three new private schools opened in that year, and in the 1964–65 school year, more than five hundred students received more than $80,000 in tuition grants. One of the new schools was Citizens’ Council School No. 1 in Jackson. The Council made private schools into a crusade, and a 1964 issue of its newsletter featured private schools. At most schools, the grants paid more than 50 percent of the tuition.
Mississippians were quick to charter private schools but not quite so quick to get the schools up and running. The number of actual schools jumped substantially from 121 in 1966 to 236 in 1970, an increase driven in large part by the Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education decision. The fastest growth occurred in the majority-black counties in the Mississippi Delta. In that area as well as in southwestern Mississippi and in the Jackson area, more than one-third of all white students attended private schools by the 1971–72 school year. In 1970, for example, virtually every white student in Canton left public schools for a private academy, while more than 40 percent of Jackson’s white students left public schools—some for private schools, others for neighboring white-majority school districts. In other areas, especially those with low African American populations, the private school movement did not take off. In northeastern and southeastern Mississippi, fewer than 10 percent of the white students (and sometimes far less) went to private schools in 1971–72.
Supporters of private schools, as a way to thwart school desegregation, made at least four often overlapping arguments. First, they said public education should be a local and state concern rather than an endeavor controlled by the federal government, and the Brown decision undercut parents’ right to determine the nature of their children’s lives and associates. Second, many argued that integration would lower educational standards because teachers would have to slow down and dilute the curriculum to allow African American children from poor school systems to try to catch up. Third, they said African American children would bring new discipline problems. Finally, some argued integrated schools would ultimately lead to interracial dating and interracial sex.
One of the most striking features of the sudden increase in private school building and attendance in 1970 is that so many of the private institutions used public school equipment and funding. According to historian Michael Fuquay, Mississippi’s “academies received books, supplies, sports equipment, organizational resources, facilities, and funds directly from the public school system. In Tunica and Clay counties, private school teachers were kept on the public school payrolls. In Forrest County, private school students were transported on public school buses.” Parents and administrators at times moved goods from the public schools to the new private schools; in other cases, public school equipment was auctioned or sold at extraordinarily low prices.
Later in the 1970s, a number of religious groups, most of them Protestant churches, started schools, often for the first time. They tended to use the language of theological conservatism, school discipline, and clear moral and educational standards rather than the language of white supremacy. In the words of historian Joseph Crespino, “Mississippi was in some ways at the forefront of the church school movement in America.” Many of those schools emphasize that they practice school prayer and Bible study in ways that public schools cannot.
One of the battles those schools fought involved tax exemption as religious institutions. In May 1969 a group of African Americans in Holmes County filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent private schools that discriminated against African Americans from receiving tax-exempt status. In Green v. Kennedy (1970) the US District Court granted the plaintiffs’ request. However, organizers and parents at many of the newer schools argued that denying them tax exemptions was unconstitutional. In the early 1980s, at the instigation of Mississippi’s Trent Lott and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms, the Reagan administration changed federal policy, allowing tax exemptions for far more of the South’s private schools.
Many of the state’s private schools have more recently sought to include people of diverse backgrounds in their student bodies, and by 2016 14 percent of the fifty-seven thousand students at Mississippi’s 257 private schools were nonwhite. The average tuition was just under forty-two hundred dollars per year for elementary schools and just under seven thousand dollars per year for high schools. About 11 percent of the state’s students attended private schools, a slight increase since the 1970s. While this figure is close to the national average of 10 percent, the state’s history with private schools as an alternative to desegregation means that issues of race and poverty remain central to issues of education in Mississippi.
- Charles C. Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870–1980 (2005)
- Michael Fuquay, History of Education Quarterly (June 2002)
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- Mississippi Association of Independent Schools website, newsite.msais.org
- Private School Review website, www.privateschoolreview.com
- Charles Westmoreland, “Southern Pharisees: Prayer, Public Life, and Politics in the South” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2008)