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Mississippi Student Challenges Black-White Divide

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Hernando High has two principals--one white, one black. There are two homecoming queens and two class presidents, one of each race. The yearbook features a black Mr. and Miss Hernando High School next to their white counterparts. The students even choose class clowns and biggest flirts of each race.

Now, one and only one student--the new president of the Student Council--is challenging the practice, instituted when the school was desegregated in 1970.

Alison Williams, 17, said living around the country and overseas with her Air Force family has given her a different perspective from that of her classmates.

“I know that’s not how it is anywhere else and that’s not how it should be,” said the honor roll student who is Latin Club president and plays on the tennis team. “It’s time to grow up.”

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A junior, Alison first questioned the policy last year when she wasn’t allowed to run for a student office because she is white and the rotating post was designated for a black that year.

“They said that’s the way it’s always been, that’s the way it’s always going to be,” said Alison, who was chosen this month by the entire 750-student body to the council presidency, which isn’t selected by race.

Her mother, Beverly Williams, has protested the policy in letters to local leaders and wants school board members to reverse the practice.

“I thought that was the whole reason we integrated so everybody would be treated equal,” said Beverly Williams, a homemaker who also has two sons. “They’ve moved everybody into one building, but we still have black and white.”

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Alison and her mother have few vocal supporters among her classmates or the 3,000 residents of this Memphis, Tenn., suburb.

“This is just a big hype. There’s nothing wrong with the system,” said 18-year-old senior Keith Dockery, who is black.

Scott St. Aubin, 15, who is white, said: “They don’t have anything else to complain about. It’s not outdated. It’s what’s best here.”

Theron E. Long, Hernando’s white principal, contends the practice teaches tolerance, and “students learn a great lesson by working together.” Long helped develop the plan to pacify blacks and whites when the all-white school was integrated in 1970--the same year court-ordered desegregation was implemented around the state.

Long noted that other public schools in Mississippi have lost students to private schools. After integration, Hernando High became mostly black; it is now about 70% white.

“You can see in some schools where people felt left out. You can see some of the results,” he said.

Long also said the practice ensures fair representation because people have a tendency to vote according to race.

Harold Kinchelow, Hernando’s black principal, said the policy worked so smoothly in the early days that “we just never thought about it” again.

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“I guess it’s time to do away with it because all these kids know each other and have no problem with each other,” he said.

Hernando High is not the only Mississippi school with dual offices, but how many isn’t known because the state doesn’t keep track.

In Hernando, the topic has come up at school board meetings in recent months, but no decisions have been made. Alison and her mother are not contemplating legal action.

“Any challenge would probably face a difficult time in the courts simply because the courts have allowed schools a great deal of leeway in promoting the proper atmosphere,” said David Ingebretsen, executive director of the state American Civil Liberties Union.


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