Ghosts Of Mississippi Past

In one Mississippi county amid the good fortune and promises of a bright future, CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports there are haunting memories of the past.


The Mississippi Delta is greener than ever. Big stakes, big money casinos have risen on former plantations in Tunica County, Miss., and changed everything - almost.

George Hibbler worked on a farm as a tractor driver but he is doing better driving a limo than he ever did driving that tractor.

"I'm still driving, but it's a better tractor now!" he said, laughing.

Hibbler is doing well but not nearly well enough to live in the new upscale subdivision. In the shadow of the casinos, there are signs of all that new money and symptoms of the old problems.

Activist Melvin Young is keeping a close eye on a handful of upscale houses on the outskirts of town. He said it is going to be white people who live there.

And, more importantly, he is watching the development of a public school planned for the adjacent field.

And who is going to go that school? "White children," Young said.

Tunica County is overwhelmingly black. Partly because of casino revenue, the school board has $5 million for a state-of-the-art school in a county where the existing public schools are substandard. So why would anyone object?

Washington, D.C., attorney Judy Brown said, "What this county is attempting to do is use public funds to build a school for all white children."

Brown and others believe once the new school is built, more high-priced houses will be built in the area called Robinsonville. They say eventually well-to-do white students will crowd out the poorer black students who now live near the site.

"Build a first-class school but ensure that education is improved for all the children of Mississippi, not just for some select group of children that live in upscale housing near casinos," said Brown.

In Tunica County, it is hard to plan for the future without being reminded of the past. Black kids still swim in their pools; white kids, in theirs. Black kids still go to public schools while most white kids go to private schools.

The school system has been under a federal desegregation order for years and the government has said it opposes this new project. The Department of Justice says the Robinsonville school could become predominantly white within a relatively short period of time.

Said Chairman of the school board Oscar Price: "I think the Justice Department, in my mind, feels like we are still living in the 60s, and that's not the case."

Price has given his word that the new school will not be all white. He said, "We would do whatever it took to make that racial balance come out right."

But some black parents in Tunica want guarantees. High-powered lawyers from Washington have been brought in. The message: Any attempt to build what looks like a white school will mean a lawsuit.

It's inconceivable to me that you'll ever have a white majority in a school district in Tunica County," said Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore. He claims there will not be enough white kids in the district to fill up that school.

In a recent Washington meeting, Moore offered a legally binding commitment that the school would not become all white. And that, he said, is more than any federal action has ever done.

"I just know the history. I mean you just can't get away from the fact that in Tunica County 2,000 black kids are going to school with 39 white kids after 30 years of desegregation orders," said Moore.

It is history that haunts this issue and it is not distant history. Just this year the local newspaper printed an ad for houses in what is still called the "Colored Subdivision." Casino dollars might be a way to fund a new future but Tunica is still paying for its past.

©1999, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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