The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870-1980

reviewed by Marilyn D.S. Monteiro - January 12, 2006

coverTitle: The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870-1980
Author(s): Charles C. Bolton
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi, Jackson
ISBN: 1578067170, Pages: 278, Year: 2005
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Segregated schools defined white’s relational status to blacks in Mississippi.  Without segregated schooling to aid in maintaining white supremacy, whites saw themselves as being no better than the blacks they feared and despised. It was necessary, therefore, that blacks be kept powerless—socially, politically, and economically.  And poor schooling would certainly help to insure this outcome.  

Following Reconstruction, black children were forced to attend separate facilities in Mississippi, which, until the late 1970’s, were largely established through their own endeavors. But lacking sufficient resources these schools were mostly one-room operations or poorly housed facilities funded by private philanthropy—often with strings attached—or, later, inadequate public school facilities which school officials grudgingly and barely funded. All, more often than not, were woefully deficient compared with the schools and the school-related resources provided white children.

Black parents desired to improve the quality of schooling for their children and sought access to white, better-funded schools. But white resistance to black and white children attending the same schools in Mississippi was violent, massive, and unwavering in the effort to maintain the status quo—superior schooling for whites, inferior schooling for blacks.

Despite intense white resistance of more than a century, black parents, leaders, and community activists carried out an equally sustained and determined struggle to fulfill their children’s educational needs.

Thus, blacks and whites were joined for decades in dogged conflict around the issue of what constituted quality public education in Mississippi. Charles C. Bolton, Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina, in his latest book entitled, The Hardest Deal of All: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870-1980, has provided a first-rate scholarly account of this conflict. Bolton successfully and meticulously documents in his eight chapters how the more than 100 year struggle “affected the development of public education in Mississippi from its [Reconstruction] beginnings in 1870 through the transition to a unitary school system in the 1970s” (p. XVII).

Ten years in the writing of this meticulously documented and easy-to read account, Professor Bolton’s work provides answers to a number of questions: How did the conflict over school desegregation in Mississippi form the state’s present public school system?  What impact did the “all deliberate speed” dictum in Brown have in reshaping the school desegregation battle?  What were the particular factors in Brown that contributed to the failure of the “Freedom of Choice” and “Equalization” plans?  What lessons can be drawn from the Mississippi school desegregation struggle?

A white Mississippian himself, Professor Bolton declares from the beginning that his sympathies lie with black Mississippians in their struggle. Black Mississippians, however, were divided on what constituted quality education. As Bolton shows, many black parents believed it safest for their children and their families to remain in their own communities in their separate schools, underprovided as these schools tended to be.  

But for those who looked elsewhere to improve education for black children, despite an extraordinarily difficult challenge, gaining access to well-resourced white schools was believed to be a more practical solution. As it was, black parents paid taxes to support the white public schools from which they were excluded, while at the same time they financially supported the black separate schools to which they were confined.

Bolton carefully traces the history of how this approach to “integration”—blacks attending white schools—won out over time to became the principal strategy of black parents and their supporters.  After all, it was to these schools that white local and state school officials and politicians time and again directed the lion’s share of local, state, and federal funds. But it was also these same white leaders who used intimidation, political chicanery, empty promises, bogus school reforms, and sundry other strategies over many decades to maintain the racially defined educational and economic advantage for white children.


Bolton examines the evolution and consequences of numerous tactics used to frustrate the development of quality education for blacks. Principal among these were (a) school consolidation which combined hundreds of widely scattered, poorly funded, largely white schools into single but more efficient entities, while largely ignoring similar situations in black schools; (b) equalization, where the greater share of funds intended to balance educational resources between black and white schools was in truth distributed largely to white schools; (c) freedom of choice, where in fact whites almost never volunteered to attend black schools and blacks were almost always prohibited from entering white schools; and (d) the creation and expansion of private white schools funded by wealthy white donors—an option that had always existed but which intensified progressively following the 1954 Supreme Court’s order outlawing school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education.  

All of these devices were blatantly intended to stall school integration despite the Court’s mandate.  This resulted in the perpetuation of an unequal, duel school system where much of the construction of and improvement in school buildings, increases in teacher’s salaries, provision of adequate school supplies, safe and reliable transportation, and the like, continued to be channeled to white schools, while black schools, for the most part, continued to be neglected and remained disastrously inadequate.

The NAACP, joined in the 1960s and 1970s by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, American Friends Service Committee, Delta Ministry, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, are all portrayed here at length by Bolton in their many efforts—litigation, community organizing, voter registration, freedom schools—supporting black parents to counter the segregationist bulwark.  

Nonetheless, Mississippi was the last of the southern states to implement school desegregation. Not until fifteen years after Brown did Mississippi in 1969 fully comply with the law. The Supreme Court’s Alexander vs. Holmes County Board of Education put a stop to the “all deliberate speed” dictum in Brown and mandated the creation of a unitary school system “at once” (Black, 1969, p. 3).  Finally, in the following school year, 1970, as Bolton shows, “all of the state’s school systems had been integrated” (p. XIX).

In his epilogue, however, Bolton expresses deep disappointment and dismay over the current and future status of Mississippi’s public schools.  For despite the long, intense battles to end the state’s segregated school system through hard-fought victories won with the help of grass-roots activism and judicial support, many of Mississippi’s public schools have developed a pattern of resegregation.  This state of affairs Bolton believes is due in large part to white flight and to the return of blacks to neighborhood elementary schools in a number of majority black counties. Many Black parents are wondering whether or not separate but equal schooling would have been better after all.  As Bolton laments, “whites remain convinced that their children cannot be educated adequately in an environment populated by significant numbers of black students” (p. 223).

With over 15 years of research in and administration of Mississippi oral history projects and programs, Bolton has interwoven throughout numerous rare archived recorded and transcribed interviews, many of which he conducted himself. His approach uncovers the more intimate aspects of the school desegregation struggle in Mississippi through the voices of those on the frontlines on both sides who tell their stories from a lived experience, legitimizing a struggle which too often is viewed from a safer more sterile distance. Additional primary sources used include school board minutes, church records, school officials’ correspondences, state teacher professional association minutes, public officials’ records, presidential papers, and local and state newspapers of the time.

These primary sources are supported by a wide array of secondary sources—published journals; master’s theses and doctoral dissertations; government documents, records and reports; court cases; philanthropic foundation reports; and census data.  A number of tables and statistical delineations along with a few maps further buttress the author’s central themes. A directory of abbreviations which are dispersed throughout the volume together with a rich source of bibliographic notes are also provided.

The Hardest Deal of All  [the title was inspired by the sentiments of a white segregationist deeply mournful over the fact that his children had to attend schools with black children] (p. xvii), contributes to further defining and clarifying the contours and content of the deep-seated, long-standing racial divide in the controversial history of black public education in white America. And the Mississippi story in its years of practicing resistance, neglect, and waste in the education of its black children is more or less representative of what in fact is a national and continuing history of the neglect and waste that we find today in the public education of black Americans.


Black, H. (1969).  Beatrice Alexander, et al. vs. Holmes County Board of Education, et al. 396 U.S. 1218 (1969) Retrieved January 8, 2006, from

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 12, 2006 ID Number: 12289, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 10:07:52 AM

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