Last Updated May 23, 2017 12:41 PM EDT
JACKSON, Miss. -- Mississippi is violating the federal law that enabled the state to rejoin the union after the Civil War, a civil rights group alleged Tuesday in a lawsuit over school funding.
The lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of four African-American mothers with children in public elementary schools asks a federal judge to force the state's leaders to comply with the 1870 law, which says Mississippi must never deprive any citizen of the "school rights and privileges" described in its 1868 constitution.
That law still obligates Mississippi to provide a "uniform system of free public schools" for all children, the SPLC said. Instead, Mississippi has repeatedly watered down education protections in its first post-Civil War constitution ever since, as part of what the lawsuit calls a white supremacist effort to prevent the education of blacks.
"From 1890 until the present day, Mississippi repeatedly has amended its education clause and has used those amendments to systematically and deliberately deprive African Americans of the education rights guaranteed to all Mississippi schoolchildren by the 1868 Constitution," the suit states.
The suit names as defendants Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, House Speaker Philip Gunn and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, all Republican elected officials. It also names state school Superintendent Carey Wright and the nine appointed members of the state Board of Education.
The plaintiffs say their children are deprived because they are black and attend overwhelmingly black schools, in districts that have been given an "F'' rating by the Mississippi Department of Education.
"I'm filing this lawsuit because the state has an obligation to make the schools that black kids attend equal to the schools that white kids attend," said Indigo Williams, the parent of a first-grade boy at Raines Elementary School in west Jackson.
All 19 Mississippi school districts rated "F'' have overwhelmingly African-American student bodies, while the state's five highest-performing school districts are predominantly white, the SPLC says.
The schools attended by the plaintiffs' children "lack textbooks, literature, basic supplies, experienced teachers, sports and other extracurricular activities, tutoring programs, and even toilet paper," the SPLC said.
"Plaintiff Dorothy Haymer, whose six-year-old daughter is in kindergarten at Webster Elementary, spent $100 this year for sanitary supplies for the school," the group said. "At Raines Elementary, which is more than 99 percent African-American, the paint is peeling off the walls, water spots are visible on the ceilings, and lunches sometimes have curdled milk and rotten fruit. Plaintiff Precious Hughes describes the school as "old, dark and gloomy - like a jail."
Mississippi already faces another major lawsuit over school funding. Former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove is representing 21 school districts demanding that the state pay back amounts it has shorted districts under the public school funding formula between 2010 and 2015.
Musgrove said the Legislature can't evade a 2006 law requiring it to fund the amount required by the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. He also argues that this law is reinforced by the current constitution.
The SPLC suit takes a sharply different view of the current law and constitution.
Its lawsuit recites changes to the provision, including a 1960 amendment that made public schools optional that was designed to allow the state to close public schools to evade racial integration.
That change was partially reversed in 1987, when voters amended the state constitution to again make public schools mandatory, but the amendment didn't require a uniform system, and said lawmakers could impose "such conditions and limitations as the Legislature may prescribe."
"This is one of the weakest education clauses in America because its mandate creates virtually no obligations that the Legislature does not choose for itself," the suit states.
That's close to the view of proponents of Initiative 42, a failed attempt in 2015 to amend the constitution yet again to require "an adequate and efficient system of public schools," and allow people to sue over funding shortfalls.
Tuesday's lawsuit, if successful, could also set the stage for such suits.
Among the lawyers bringing Tuesday's suit is Rita Bender, widow of 1964 Civil Rights martyr Michael "Mickey" Schwerner. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Schwerner were killed by Ku Klux Klan members while in Neshoba County to investigate the burning of church and beating of its African-American members. The three bodies were found weeks later in an earthen dam.
Last week, the SPLC filed a separate lawsuit on behalf of two Democratic lawmakers after Gov. Phil Bryant ordered to cut $20 million in funding from public schools. The lawsuit asks the court to fund schools at the level budgeted by the legislature and to pay back money that was unconstitutionally cut from the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP).