By: Sid Salter
School desegregation in Mississippi was a tough, messy and often a very dangerous business.
None knew those truths better than the white and black Mississippi school superintendents, principals, classroom teachers, coaches and students who were charged a half-century ago with catching the judicial hot potato known as Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education.
The failure of public schools in Mississippi to follow the mandates of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education to integrate state schools with “all deliberate speed” resulted in ongoing legal challenges. In 1969, the snail’s pace of school integration at “all deliberate speed” was replaced by the dictate to integrate “at once” in its Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education decision in 1969.
The decision was handed down by the Supreme Court on Oct. 29 of that year — and some nine weeks later, the 30 school districts impacted by the Alexander case were integrated. But even with those dramatic actions by the federal courts, school integration remained a challenging and convoluted process.
Few Mississippi school districts produced more intrigue in ultimately achieving integration than the Yazoo City School District, led in 1969 by legendary Mississippi school administrator and coach Harold “Hardwood” Kelly.
Kelly was a World War II veteran who served as a U.S. Army muleskinner in the mountains of Italy during the Monte Cassino campaign, one of the longest and bloodiest campaigns of the war as Allied forces made three different assaults on the Gustav Line before it finally fell. The protracted Italian battle must have seemed prologue to the battle Kelly fought to implement peaceful and effective school integration in Yazoo City.
Kelly’s story was partially told by national political reporters in 2010 when then-Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour was considering a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. As a coach and later as superintendent, Kelly had worked with two of Yazoo City’s most prominent alums – Barbour and writer Willie Morris.
When the time came to integrate, Morris was in town to cover the event in his hometown. Morris would pen a book on the saga called “Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town.”
But the Morris book and subsequent treatments by national political reporters largely missed Kelly’s version of the story and the context of the pressures school officials faced in that era.
Too many of the stories of Mississippi educators from that era have passed away. But through the efforts of Mississippi State University Professor James “Jim” Adams and his wife, University of Alabama Professor Natalie Adams, many of those first-person accounts of public school integration in Mississippi are being preserved – like those of “Hardwood” Kelly.
The Adamses have completed an oral history study on the desegregation of the state’s public schools between 1963 and 1971 called “Just Trying to Have School”(299 pages, University Press of Mississippi.) Their book focuses on recording the first-person accounts of administrators, teachers, coaches, staff, students, parents, community activists and others who have a story from that era.
The authors sought the perspectives of both whites and African-Americans and offers a fascinating look at one of the most important events in the state’s history since the Civil War.
Our state owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to educators of that era who braved the threat of violence and mayhem to make school integration work and advance public education in this state. Their history, their stories, should not be lost.
Thanks to the meticulous documentary work of Jim and Natalie Adams, that vital history was salvaged. Shortly after he granted an interview to the Adamses for their book, Kelly died at age 91 on May 21, 2015, in Yazoo City after giving 40 years of his life to public education.