Rupert Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 9, 2009

Rupert Howell Managing Editor

Panola has long history with CIA appointee Panetta

President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for Central Intelligence Agency chief has a history with Panola County  and, more specifically, the South Panola School District that dates back almost 40 years.

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During the late 1960s in the era of dual public schools, the U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare was responsible for federal funds coming to school districts. The U.S. Justice Department’s division of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) used the HEW’s withholding of funds to threaten enforcement of integration in resistant school districts.

Dr. Fred Wirt, in his “Politics of Southern Equality,” wrote that HEW approved funds cutoff for South Panola in early October, 1968 when only 74 of 2,548 blacks were enrolled in white schools — a drop from the preceding year.

Although hoping for a change to a new more conservative administration with the inauguration of President Richard Nixon in January, 1969, the conservative upheld the funds cutoff for South Panola and four other Southern school districts which allowed a 60-day grace period for a new desegregation plan.

HEW’s Lloyd Henderson had rejected South Panola’s plan after school board members and their attorney made a visit to Washington.

Shortly after Henderson was removed from office and replaced by then-Republican Leon Panetta.

The late James H. Moore, who served on that school board, is quoted in Wirt’s book saying, “We went to Washington and met with Leon Panetta. We were able to make more progress than originally thought possible. . . We were never under a court order of any kind — as so many school districts were.”

Carl Lindgren’s book, “Panola Remembers,” states that in March, 1969, the South Panola School District was found in compliance with HEW guidelines and allowed to open in September of 1969 under the modified “Freedom of Choice” plan.

Wirt’s book goes on to state that the new Office of Civil Rights Director Panetta was pleased as South Panola’s plan was the only acceptable plan of five submitted.

Wirt’s book further states that OCR director Panetta was fired in February, 1970 for being too liberal. For Panetta, elimination of discrimination was no whim or social experiment, but a mandate of the law, Wirt continues.

His boss, President Nixon, also thought desegregation was a Constitutional mandate, Wirt explains, but maintained that  a rule of reason exists in which school boards acting in good faith can formulate phases of desegregation which best suit the needs of their localities.

Which is ironic because the next school year following Panetta’s removal the federal government required that all schools be integrated at South Panola. The decision mandated that the federal government would no longer abide by the gradual desegregation plan that Panetta and his office had earlier agreed to with the local school board.