May 16 (Reuters) - A federal court has ordered a Mississippi town to consolidate its junior high and high schools in order to fully desegregate its school system after a 50-year battle the town has waged with the U.S. Department of Justice, agency officials said Monday.
Black students and white students in Cleveland, Miss., are largely separated into two high schools, one mostly white and one mostly black, according to the announcement.
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The situation is similar with the town's middle school and junior high - one has mostly black students, and the other is historically white, officials said.
As a result of the order, handed down late Friday by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, the Cleveland School District will combine the two high schools together, as well as join the junior high and middle school into one, desegregating the secondary schools for the first time in the district's 100-year history.
School officials could not immediately be reached to comment.
The court rejected two alternative plans posed by the district, calling them unconstitutional and saying that the dual system the district has been running has failed to achieve the highest possible degree of desegregation required by law.
"Six decades after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared that 'separate but equal has no place' in public schools, this decision serves as a reminder to districts that delaying desegregation obligations is both unacceptable and unconstitutional," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Cleveland, with a population of 12,000, is home to Delta State University and sits in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where many of the early slave owners ran cotton plantations along the Mississippi River.
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A railroad track divides the city both geographically and racially, a common occurrence in many Delta towns.
According to the court opinion, testimony from both black and white community members supported the integration of the schools and noted that the perception had been that white students attended better schools.
"The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education," the opinion read. "Although no court order can right these wrongs, it is the duty of the district to ensure that not one more student suffers under this burden." (Reporting by Karen Brooks in Fort Worth, Texas; Editing by Alistair Bell)