By: Sid Salter
The struggle for peaceful school integration in Mississippi just over a half-century ago was a time that called for the emergence of quiet heroes – men and women of courage and good will from both the black and white races.
Lee J. McKinney, 82, who died May 12 at Anderson Regional Medical Center in Meridian following a long illness, was one of those necessary heroes. McKinney grew up in Monroe County and was a graduate of West Amory High School, a school which had its roots in earlier iterations as “Amory Colored Public School” and “Monroe County Training School.”
After completing high school, McKinney would graduate from Rust College, the historically black private liberal arts college in Holly Springs. McKinney also served his country honorably overseas in the U.S. Army for four years in the 124TH Armored Ordnance Battalion.
Mr. McKinney was soft-spoken, polite, and always well-dressed. Despite his quiet nature, he had the look of a middleweight boxer who was ready to go a few rounds merely by removing his sport coat. But as one of the key administrators at Neshoba Central High School during the tense 1969-70 school year, he was remembered not for his physical strength but for his moral courage.
U.S. public schools in the Southern region first became majority minority in 2009. In Mississippi in 2008, some 53.6 percent of all public-school students were people of color.
Those numbers were different back in 1969, when in a matter of weeks, the snail’s pace of school integration at “all deliberate speed” (under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling) decision 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 Mississippi school districts impacted by the Alexander case were integrated.
My father, Leo W. Salter, was principal at NCHS and McKinney and Leland Harrison were his assistants. In the rather strange rules of that time, Dan and Mr. Harrison handled the discipline for white students and Mr. McKinney disciplined the black students.
Because of the prior civil rights atrocities in Neshoba County, the integration of NCHS drew national media attention. It was a tough time for rural Mississippi educators. My dad relied on Mr. McKinney first as a professional colleague, but soon began to regard him as a trusted friend.
The stories of too many of those brave educators during Mississippi’s school desegration era were lost over time. But Mississippi State University Professor James “Jim” Adams and his wife, University of Alabama Professor Natalie Adams, preserved many of those first-person accounts of public-school integration in Mississippi.
The Adamses 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 focused on recording the first-person accounts of administrators, teachers, coaches, staff, students, parents, community activists and others who had relevant stories from that era.
Our state owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to educators of that era like Lee J. McKinney 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.
Because of COVID-19, I could not attend Mr. McKinney’s funeral. But I read the comments on the funeral home’s website from mourners. I recognized many of the names of former NCHS students, white students, who wanted a half-century later to say a kind word to honor a truly great school administrator who happened to be black.