Rupert Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rupert Howell

Johnson family taught by example with SP integration

On page 12A in this newspaper you can read an account of the Marvin and Ruth Johnson family who entered the all-white schools of South Panola District in the 1960s.

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They were among the African-American families in the South Panola School District to choose the former “white only” schools when the federal government insisted that South Panola integrate. A “Freedom of Choice” plan was offered so that parents could choose which school their children would attend.

The plan was a failure according to the federal government. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare decided that the local school system was not being integrated sufficiently and ordered complete integration in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

These first students of Freedom of Choice set the tone for what was to follow with full racial integration in our public schools. Many of them were the brightest and best students from their previous school. They were few in numbers and up against tough odds of having a “normal education,” if there is such a thing.

They had to endure resentment, innuendo, flagrant racism, slurs, spit balls, terrorist-style intimidation and physical confrontation.

Most all of the white student body had not dealt with blacks on an equal footing. The only time we saw the black population in dress clothes was when we passed their churches on Sunday.

White students and the population in general were entering an unknown era and were afraid of what was going to come with it. It was a tense time.

What we found was that our darker skinned classmates could learn. We learned that they also had a functioning social structure with values similar to what our faith, which was supposed to be the same as theirs, professed. We saw that some of our black classmates were beautiful, just like some of our white classmates. We found most looking for opportunity, not confrontation.

It was a decisive time in the history of the country, the South, Mississippi and South Panola School District. Although there was some turbulence, the district complied with the decision of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

Strong, careful leadership helped us weather the storm of change, but a handful of families who braved the unknown and sent their children to a new school broke the ice and set the table for successes that have followed at South Panola.