64 Parishes

Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board

Desegregation efforts in Tangipahoa Parish began in 1965 when M. C. Moore and Henry Smith filed a lawsuit against the parish school board calling for a racially integrated and unified school system.

Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board

Dr. Antoinette Harrell

Descendants of M. C. Moore discussing desegregation at the Tangipahoa African American Heritage Museum and Veteran Archives. Left to right, Charles Terry, Jeanette Moore Terry, Joyce Marie Moore, Catherine Moore, Betty Moore Jackson, and Rev. Henry Jackson.

The Moore v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board case to integrate Tangipahoa Parish schools and enhance employment opportunities for Black Louisianans within the educational system began in 1965 and remains unresolved as of 2024. The case reflects the complex nature of race relations in South Louisiana over the past six decades as the region continues to come to terms with desegregation.

The US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision set in motion efforts to integrate American schools. Integration in Louisiana colleges and universities took place in the 1950s. The state’s public schools in New Orleans commenced the process in 1960. In nearby Tangipahoa Parish, desegregation efforts began when M. C. Moore, a Black man, filed suit against the local school board on May 3, 1965, on behalf of his minor children Joyce Marie, Jerry, and Thelma Louise. Joining Moore was Henry Smith, who filed for his children, Bennie, Charles Edward, Shirley Ann, and Earline. The suit called for an integrated school system. When questioned about the suit, Moore stressed that his oldest daughter Fannie was a product of the parish’s segregated school system and that despite her excellent record at the all-Black Greenville Park High School, she was unprepared for college-level work when she enrolled at Southern University. Moore did not want his younger children to face similar difficulties at the next academic level, and he, along with Smith, filed the suit at the urging of local activists. Moore and Smith’s challenge to the racial status quo resulted in immediate retribution. From random shotgun blasts aimed at Moore’s Hammond home to his electricity being disconnected, he and his family experienced an array of overt and covert forms of intimidation. Smith likewise received an array of threats.

Judge Frank Ellis of the US Eastern District Court in New Orleans initially heard the case and ordered the school board to gradually desegregate in the 1965–1966 school year, with the completion of the process expected at the end of the 1969–1970 academic year. A simple freedom-of-choice plan would guide implementation, allowing families to decide which school they wanted their children to attend. Requests would be accommodated on a space-available basis. As the 1965 school year neared, agreement on the specifics of the integration plan unraveled, prompting Judge Ellis to postpone his plan. Over the next three years, delay followed delay as disputants in the case filed motions and countermotions. The freedom-of-choice plan, which formed the initial basis for all Moore-related discussions, was ruled unconstitutional in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia (1968), as it tended to undermine efforts to create a unitary system by permitting the existence of single-race schools. District Court Judge Alvin B. Rubin, in turn, requested that the school board develop an operational plan for the start of the 1969 academic year that would include school closures and substantial student relocation to ensure compliance.

Desegregation took place in fits and starts in 1969 in the parish’s thirty-five schools that educated approximately 9,300 white students and 7,200 Black students. By the end of the school year in 1970, limited integration was an established fact despite considerable pushback from many white residents. However, the level of integration varied not only from school to school but also from classroom to classroom. Although the court clearly ruled that “all classroom assignments be made on a racially non-discriminatory basis and in such a manner that no class is racially identifiable,” the parish’s record proved spotty, with some classes recorded as fully integrated and others entirely Black.

Some schools used “ability grouping,” in which the lowest-achieving Black students were deliberately segregated in all Black classrooms. The lowest-performing white students were, in turn, segregated in their own separate classes. Clear evidence that the parish’s school bus system continued to maintain segregated routes also existed. Similarly the integration plan left the door open for continued litigation due to accusations that the school board lacked a true commitment to change, prompting legal challenges throughout the 1970s. Most grievances focused on the many Black teachers and administrators who lost their jobs during integration efforts or who sought employment thereafter. As a result the court gravitated toward a forty-sixty hiring ratio so that the number of Black-to-white employees in the school system would reflect the general racial composition of the parish. Judge Rubin also made it possible for any student, with parental consent, to leave a school in which they were in the majority race and transfer to any parish school in which they would be in the minority. The majority-to-minority plan would be a key feature in all future developments in the case.

Despite progress the integration process proved contentious on all sides. In 1975 both sides in the case agreed to the formation of a biracial committee of ten Black and ten white members representing each of the parish’s four school districts to facilitate community dialogue and assist in settling contentious school hiring matters. Over time the momentum behind the case waned as disputes regarding matters, such as rules governing student suspensions, band uniforms, and the termination of specific employees, many of whom lacked credentials to retain their posts in the education system, took priority. The seemingly interminable proceedings surrounding Moore began to weigh on stakeholders. Even Judge Rubin expressed dismay concerning the slow progress and constant bickering over the case. By the late 1970s Moore languished as the disputants walked away from the fight without resolving the case’s key aspects. The school system had yet to achieve unitary status and faced little oversight to ensure the integration benchmarks in Moore were met and maintained, especially concerning hiring practices. Over time a growing number of white parents pulled their children from Tangipahoa schools in exchange for private institutions, a move that both reflected and exacerbated declining system academic performance. As a result the percentage of Black attendees in parish schools hovered near 50 percent, yet parish teachers, coaches, and school administrators remained predominantly white.

In 2007 the Greater Tangipahoa Parish Branch of the NAACP requested the reopening of Moore due to continued allegations of discrimination, a decision ostensibly triggered by Hammond High School’s failure to hire a Black head football coach along the lines established in the existing court order that preference be given to Black candidates for school system jobs. To some observers the school board neglected its responsibility from Moore to address the system’s historic failure to hire Black people in its schools. Discord over new coaching hires, in turn, brought renewed attention to possible evidence of employment discrimination and the return of partially segregated schools. The reinvigorated suit resulted in a second wave of desegregation plans that would adjust school district lines that had been purposely drawn to omit Black communities and enhance efforts to hire Black educators to positions throughout the school system.

Unlike in the past the Tangipahoa Parish School Board in the 2010s worked to find a solution that all stakeholders would find acceptable. In particular the new parish plan differed from previous iterations by encouraging voluntary integration efforts and devoting considerable resources to infrastructure development and curriculum innovations to make parish schools more appealing. In 2021 Judge Ivan Lemelle granted the parish school system provisional unitary (desegregated) status after most court-ordered benchmarks had been achieved. The temporary unitary designation remains in effect, with the parish school board being required to submit regular reports to the court that address its compliance efforts. An initial hearing on final unitary status is scheduled for July 11, 2024.