3 Miss. schools named for civil rights activists

Published 1:10 am Sunday, January 18, 2009

3 Miss. schools named for civil rights activists

JACKSON (AP) — A forerunner to the civil rights litigation of the 1950s was a lawsuit filed by a black Mississippi school teacher who was being paid half the salary of her colleagues.

Gladys Noel Bates’ suit over pay iniquity caused her and her husband, who was also an educator, to be blacklisted in public schools throughout the state. Shots were fired into their home before it was burned to the ground and they were forced to leave the state to find employment.

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More than a half-century later, Jackson Public Schools is honoring Bates and two other activists who fought for education equality by naming new schools after them.

A dedication ceremony was held Friday at the state Capitol. The elementary and two middle schools are being built with part of a $150 million bond issue.

In addition to Bates, schools will be named for former state Sen. Henry Kirksey and Thomas W. Cardozo, who served as Mississippi’s first black state superintendent of education during Reconstruction.

The 88-year-old Bates, the only living honoree, traveled to Jackson from Denver, where she’s lived and worked as an educator since leaving the state decades ago.

“I’m so very happy to be here and see that there’s a different climate,” Bates said, referring to the race relations in Mississippi.

Bates said having a school bearing her name is “quite rewarding. I never expected it.”

Bates’ 1948 lawsuit charged salary discrimination against black teachers and principals. The suit reached the Supreme Court after three years, but justices declined to rule on it.

Still, the suit initiated the pay increases that black educators began to receive, said Ivory Phillips, former dean of Jackson State University’s College of Education and Human Development.

“It was the case that got the ball rolling,” Phillips said during the ceremony, adding that the efforts of all three have made education more democratic and inclusive. “We’re setting these schools apart as citadels to carry on the legacy of these individuals.”

Henry “Hank” Kirksey Jr. of Los Angeles said naming a school after his father was appropriate because the elder “stressed education.”

Henry Kirksey, who won office in 1979, was one of the first black legislators elected after Reconstruction. He served two four-year terms in the Senate. The Tupelo native also was a plaintiff and expert witness in several lawsuits that paved the way for blacks to hold public office.

In 1965, Kirksey challenged the countywide election of state legislators. His lawsuit led to the adoption of single-member legislative districts in 1979.

He also filed suit to make public the records of the now defunct Sovereignty Commission, which had functioned as the state’s segregation watchdog agency.

Cardozo, the son of a freeborn black woman and a Jewish journalist, had unsuccessfully run as a Republican for sheriff in North Carolina before moving to Mississippi.

He took over as state education superintendent in 1874 and immediately began trying to secure funding for schools. He also supported providing free textbooks and eliminating racial segregation.

When Democrats took over state government in 1876, there was a move to impeach Cardoza and other Republican officials. Cardoza resigned instead and moved to Massachusetts, where he died in 1881.