White Flight

The term white flight involves residential choice, urban and suburban life, and issues of local government. In Mississippi most forms of white flight are related to schools. The first major movement toward public schools in Mississippi started in 1868, when the state founded an education department and established a school district for each county as well as for each city with a population over five thousand. For the next century, each school district maintained segregated schools. During the Jim Crow period, white schools had better facilities and better funding.

The US Supreme Court’s rulings in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), US v. Hinds (1969), and Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969) forced schools to desegregate. In the late 1960s and early 1970s some white Mississippians (particularly those in districts that had even numbers of white and black students or that had black majorities) decided they did not want their children going to school with black students. White parents removed their children from the public schools across the state but especially did so in the Delta and the Black Belt. At Durant Elementary in Holmes County, for example, 160 of 165 white students failed to show up for class after desegregation in 1965. While many similar examples existed across the state, only a small percentage of all students left Mississippi’s public school systems in the 1960s.

Some parents decided to homeschool their children, while others moved their children to private schools. Prior to 1954, the state had only three non-church-run private schools. By 1966, however, the state had 121 private schools, a number that jumped to 236 in 1970. These schools, many of which were propped up by the White Citizens’ Councils or local churches, were dubbed white flight schools. In February 1970 all but a few white students left the public schools in Tunica, and most began attending one of three private schools established by local churches. In Indianola, 241 white students left the Indianola Public School District for a private school established by the Baptist and Methodist churches. In 1970 whites in the town of Drew established an academy at the National Guard Armory.

A second type of white flight involved movement to suburbs with separate school systems. As schools integrated, some white families chose to move to school districts with fewer African American students, generally leaving city districts for adjacent county districts. In Milliken v. Bradley (1974) the US Supreme Court ruled that states could not force integration across school district lines. In Mississippi, the ruling prompted whites to leave Jackson for suburbs such as Clinton, Brandon, and Madison and to leave Meridian for Lauderdale County. Southaven, Mississippi, founded in 1980 with a population of about sixteen thousand, attracted whites fleeing Memphis, Tennessee, and by the twenty-first century had more than forty thousand people.

White flight led to dramatic changes in the school populations of some towns and small cities in the 1970s and 1980s after federal courts mandated that neighborhood schools be desegregated. For example, in the two years after Laurel desegregated its neighborhood schools in 1976, the city lost more than eight hundred students. While the number of black students in Laurel remained the same, whites dropped from a 53 percent majority to a 25 percent minority. Similarly, more than four thousand white students left Columbus Municipal Schools between the mid-1970s and 1995, and white students went from 43 percent of Hattiesburg students in 1987 to 23 percent after a ruling there. Many of these students moved to Lamar County, where large subdivisions began springing up in Petal and the Oak Grove community.

Census data clearly demonstrate these mass movements. In 1960, prior to any school desegregation, Jackson had roughly 144,000 residents, 64 percent of whom were white. By 1990 Jackson’s population had ballooned to 196,637 but was only 44 percent white, meaning an overall decrease of about 6,000 white residents. Over the next decade, Jackson suffered a net loss of a little over 12,000 people, but the city’s white population decreased by almost 35,000. By contrast, Clinton, a suburb of Jackson, had 3,500 residents in 1960 but by 1990 had a population of nearly 22,000, and 82 percent of Clintonians were white. In 2010, 79.4 percent of Jackson’s 173,514 residents were African American, while 33.9 percent of Clinton’s 25,216 residents were African American.

As cities lose people, they lose tax dollars. To recover the revenue lost from white flight, some cities have raised taxes, trimmed municipal budgets, and cut government funding. As city services decline, other residents with the means to do so—often white residents—move away, creating a vicious cycle.

White flight is a national phenomenon, prevalent in many cities throughout the United States, and not all cities in Mississippi have experienced white flight. Tupelo, for example, has experienced constant growth without a major loss in white population.

Further Reading

  • Charles S. Aiken, The Cotton Plantation South since the Civil War (1998)
  • Charles C. Bolton, The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870–1980 (2005)
  • Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2005)
  • Mississippi Statistical Abstract, Mississippi State University (1981, 2005)
  • J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
  • Courtenay Slater and George Hall, Places, Towns, and Townships (1993)
  • Stephen Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White (1997)
  • US Census Bureau website, www.census.gov
  • US Department of Commerce, County and City Data Book, 1977: A Statistical Abstract (1977)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title White Flight
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date December 3, 2021
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018