The last game

After a five-decade-long desegregation battle, two football teams face off for the final time in Mississippi town

As he stands before his football team, the sun begins to set over Kendrick Woodard’s left shoulder, the red ball of fire glistening on the 40 black helmets arrayed in front of him.

“You all know they look at us a little differently,” he yells at his players from East Side High School in Cleveland, Mississippi. “We’re the rival from the other side of town. But it comes to an end tonight, baby!”

These are the East Side Trojans, who are “blacking out,” wearing black from helmet to cleats. The uniforms match the racial makeup of the school’s students: All but one is African-American.

On the sidelines are the Cleveland High School Wildcats, wearing new, all-white uniforms with “The Battle of 61” across the front, for the highway that runs through this Delta city of 12,000. Located little more than a mile away, Cleveland has a historic reputation as the white school in town, although the student body is now almost evenly divided between blacks and whites.

The rivalry between the two schools has been going on for more than 50 years. But this game, held on a neutral field at Division II Delta State University last Friday, may well be the last. In May, after nearly 51 years of litigation, a federal judge ordered Cleveland’s two high schools to consolidate. She found that, despite various efforts over the years, the existence of an almost entirely black high school meant that desegregation had never truly occurred here.

The lines dividing Cleveland are both stark and blurred. At halftime, with Cleveland High up 14-8, its band plays a medley featuring Elvis Presley and Jimmy Buffett. East Side’s band responds with its own music featuring, among others, Choppa and Master P’s Choppa Style. Then, as halftime concludes, the bands come together, harmonizing and marching in formation, while fans on both sides of the stadium stand and cheer.

At a Cleveland High practice earlier in the week, some of the underclassmen stand on the sidelines and watch Montavious Thomas, one of their captains and defensive linemen, line up in the backfield to rehearse a play the team reserves for special situations.

As he’s handed the ball, Thomas, who is black, runs through every level of the defense for 15 yards, guys bouncing off him at every angle. One of the white players turns to me: “We call him ‘Big, Black Beast.’ ” A couple of minutes pass before another white player yells from the sideline: “Give it to the ‘Big, Black Beast’ again!”

It all appears playful, part of the trash talk that’s been running nonstop in between plays. The Wildcats, with a roughly 50-50 split of white and black players on this year’s roster, are 2-3 so far this season and know what’s at stake on Friday: A victory will make it four wins in a row against East Side to wrap up the city’s most important rivalry.

“Coming out with a win would mean everything to me, knowing we’d have bragging rights forever,” says Rashad Harbin, an African-American junior cornerback.

His senior quarterback, Samuel Coleman-Dancer, who is also black, interjects: “For eternity.”

“Yes, for eternity,” says Harbin. “Especially knowing we’re going to consolidate.”

Standing on the sidelines, the players assure me that while they want to beat the guys from East Side one more time, there’s no real animosity. Many of them are friends, having grown up playing pee-wee and junior-high ball together. They are neighbors, with many of the students at both schools busing over to the other school every day to take electives or advanced level classes – a program the district has had for a while.

“We see each other every day,” Coleman-Dancer says. “Racial issues are not a big deal. To us, it’s all the same.”

Cleveland High coach Kelly Causey remembers the first meeting between the schools in 1984 because he was on the field.

“With me playing in the first game and coaching in the last one for the record books, it would mean a lot to have my name down as the Cleveland High coach to beat East Side in the last game,” said Causey, a CHS alum from the class of 1987.

Entering his sixth season as football coach, Causey, who is white, said that, despite what the Justice Department argues, there is no racial division in the Cleveland schools.

Coach Kelly Causey (center) leads some drills during football practice on Wednesday at Cleveland High School. Causey is the head football coach at the school and a CHS alum that played in the first Battle for 61 rivalry game against East Side High School in 1984.

Andrea Morales for The Undefeated

“I don’t see it as a city divided in any way,” Causey said. “I don’t see either one of the schools as less-performing than the other. I don’t really see it as divided, even if the judge sees it that way.”

The move to consolidate Cleveland’s middle and high schools – 62 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that schools that were “separate but equal” were unconstitutional – has come with many stops along the way. Like in many cities across the country, it started with a lawsuit. In 1965, a group of 131 black children and their families sued the Cleveland School District for failing to comply with Brown, citing that black children were forbidden from attending schools on the west side of town, where almost all of the city’s white families lived.

The schools remained segregated until 1969, when a federal judge drew new attendance boundaries, which slowly increased black enrollment at Cleveland High. Twenty years later, the Justice Department intervened and the system introduced magnet schools to help integrate its elementary schools. The Obama administration took up the case in 2011, with Justice Department officials saying that no one school should be 99 percent black in a school district that’s 30 percent white. In 2013, U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson did away with the attendance zones, allowing junior high and high school students to choose their schools. The result? No whites enrolled at the schools on the east side of Cleveland, including East Side High.

Last academic year, 48 percent of the 624 students Cleveland High were white and 45 percent were black. At East Side High, 368 of 369 students were black.

The legal fight came to a head earlier this year in May, when U.S. Judge Debra M. Brown ordered that the district, after failing for five decades to reach the “greatest degree of desegregation possible,” desegregate its middle and high schools.

“This failure, whether born of good faith, bad faith, or some combination of the two, has placed Cleveland in the unenviable position of operating under a desegregation order long after schools in bastions of segregation, like Boston, Jackson, and Mobile, have been declared unitary,” Brown wrote in her decision. “More important, and of far greater harm, the delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education. 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.”

Brown’s opinion was a disappointing one for Jamie Jacks, the lead attorney for the Cleveland School District, still feeling the sting from the harsh statements delivered in the decision. (Several school officials, including Superintendent Jacqueline Thigpen, declined to talk, referring questions to Jacks.)

“I can’t sit here and tell you that the town is perfect in its racial diversity and interaction between blacks and whites,” said Jacks, in her office along Cotton Row in downtown Cleveland. “But I don’t think there’s a town in America that can say that.”

Football players load up the Cleveland High School bus on their way to the “Battle of 61” game | Randy Payne, 7, leans on a player during warm ups for the “Battle of 61”

Andrea Morales for The Undefeated

Sherry Shepard, a longtime educator and mother of four daughters who went to Cleveland High, said that “as long as you don’t discuss race in Cleveland, you don’t have a problem.”

Last year, her youngest daughter, Jasmine, was named co-valedictorian along with a white student. The district said both students had identical GPAs. But Shepard, who is black, contends her daughter should have been the sole valedictorian. It was a disappointing turn, she said, after having a positive experience in choosing to send her daughters to Cleveland High.

“The decision [to enroll her children at Cleveland] was made – and I hate saying this, but it’s how I feel – on my perception that white people are going to take care of their own, so they’re not going to allow their own to go lacking,” said Shepard.

What happens next in Cleveland isn’t certain. The district has appealed Brown’s decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. It also asked Brown for a stay of her ruling through the appeals process.

“In 2016, telling parents you have a choice, I think that’s constitutional,” said Jacks, who is white. “That’s essentially the argument on appeal.”

It’s not known when either court would make a decision. Jacks said the district is already sketching out the necessary planning if its appeal fails.

Whether the city is united or divided, the plans for consolidation are bringing up questions about who will stay and who will leave, whether it be an administrator, a teacher or a coach. The plan is for Cleveland High School to house the new consolidated school, which has a yet-to-be-determined name, while East Side will house the city’s junior high students. One of the most common fears stemming from consolidation relates to the elimination of opportunity, whether it be in the classroom, on the field or in other extracurricular activities.

But Harbin, 16, said he believes consolidating the schools will generate improved resources for students.

“It’s not just about athletics,” he said. “For Cleveland School District students, we’re going to have better access to technology and resources that we can use for after we graduate. I was actually in favor of the consolidation – and am still in favor of it.”

If the consolidation does move forward, a combined football team could be “an opportunity for bonding within the town,” said Jacks. “The way we handle the football team will be important in this process, maybe just as important as some other things that would be high on the list. It’s just the way we operate in the South.”

Wrapping up practice, Cleveland High’s Causey calls the players in close.

“I don’t have to motivate y’all a whole lot,” he tells them, with dragonflies bouncing off their helmets. “Now, touch somebody and pray.”

Our Father in heaven, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…

East Side High's football team pulls out of the Delta State University stadium after defeating the Cleveland High team 32-30.

East Side High School’s football team raises their helmets at the end of their practice.

Andrea Morales for The Undefeated

On the other side of town, there’s another prayer before Thursday’s practice at East Side.

Grace us, Father…

The team breaks for the hourlong walkthrough and they’re locked in. No laughing, no chatting about anything other than football.

“This s— is all business tomorrow,” an assistant coach says to the defensive players on the sidelines. “Losing to Cleveland is the worst feeling.”

On the field, surrounded by single-story homes, a couple of which are painted in East Side’s black and gold, Woodard, the team’s head coach, is calm but stern, working with the defense and special teams to counter any trick plays he’s seen before.

If there’s one person with a unique attachment to the rivalry, it’s Woodard, a former Cleveland High quarterback. Now in his 11th year with East Side, Woodard knows his future and that of Causey, his counterpart, remains a question heading into next year – and the decision is out of their hands.

East Side coach Kendrick Woodard leads a prayer before his team’s game against crosstown rivals Cleveland High School.

Andrea Morales for The Undefeated

“With the possibility of it being one school, there’s going to be one team and one coach,” Woodard said. “Whoever gets that job will get a great group of young men from both schools.”

For the seniors on his team, though, there is no next year. Gary Conrod, a senior defensive end and fullback, lives right up the street from the school and has thought of himself as an East Side Trojan since he was a toddler.

“We get labeled as the underdogs every year, because we get labeled as the all-black school,” Conrod said. “They’re trying to say there’s more talent over there, across the highway. We just want to prove we can all ball the same way they can.”

With the school district’s current open-enrollment program, which allows students to choose which schools they attend, no matter where they live, a healthy share of those attending East Side selected the school because it’s where their parents or other family members went to school. Conrod’s mother and brother walked the same halls he did, which made it only natural, he said, that he would want to attend East Side. It’s a legacy he and others remain proud of, even if there’s a perceived gap between the schools.

“They’re probably saying there’s a gap since we don’t have any white people here,” he said. “You can choose to sign up here. We’re not begging no one to come here. And we’re not telling people they can’t come here.”

Both high schools can boast of academic strengths. Cleveland High outperformed East Side on average ACT scores in 2015, 17.7 to 15.8, according to the Mississippi Department of Education. At the same time, East Side, with a math proficiency of 81 percent and an English proficiency of 65 percent, outdoes not just its crosstown rival but also statewide averages.

In the eight minutes it takes to drive through the city, you can see both the evolution and the suffering that defines the local economy. On the west side of the city, there’s Delta State University, two national hotel chains, a Walmart and a Kroger, a downtown with shops and restaurants, a statue honoring the Bolivar County residents who fought and died for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and the new $20 million Grammy Museum. More than 20 manufacturing industries, from a pharmaceutical company to a propane-tank company, make up the town’s main source of industry.

But the Delta has long been emblematic of rural poverty. In 1967, a year before he was assassinated, Massachusetts Sen. Robert Kennedy, wanting to gauge the impact of the War on Poverty initiative, stopped in Cleveland. While here, the experience of visiting with barefoot black children in tattered clothes, many of whom were hungry, left the senator shaken, according to Edward R. Schmitt’s 2010 account in President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty.

On the east side of town today, the number of vacant or half-filled strip malls and liquor stores are only matched by the volume of fast-food outlets along South Davis Avenue. More than a quarter of the city’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and the disparities between the city’s white and black communities are sizable. The median income for a white family in Cleveland is nearly $20,000 more than that of a black family, which comes in at a little more than $13,000 a year. More than 37 percent of the city’s black population lives below the poverty line, about 25 percentage points higher than the rate for Cleveland’s white population, according to Census data.

Leroy Byars was only 24 when he accepted the head coaching job at East Side in 1972. Byars went 128-13-5 during his 15 seasons patrolling the sidelines for East Side’s black and gold, winning the state’s Coach of the Year award 11 times. Now, he said, the dissension in the city over the perceived differences in the two schools has worn on him and he is ready to turn the page.

“You have to change with the time or time is going to leave you behind,” said Byars, who is now retired and still lives in Cleveland.

“The legacy of East Side will continue in your heart,” he said. “I was overjoyed to hear this would be the last game, not because I want to see East Side shut down, but because I’m willing to give that up for the future of kids here in Cleveland, Mississippi.”

Woodard, though, still believes there’s a place for two schools.

“Everywhere you go, there’s some form of racism or segregation,” he said. “I think the two schools are just fine.”

As his players take a knee at the end of practice, Woodard tells them they’ll be going with their black uniforms for the game against Cleveland High, which excites his 5-0 team.

“We blacking it out tomorrow,” he says.

On Friday night, the game goes back and forth, each side trading big running plays on offense and timely stops on defense. And there’s no shortage of drama at the end. Having driven inside the East Side 5-yard line, Cleveland fumbled at the 2 with less than two minutes left. Less than 20 seconds later, Cleveland forces a safety and the score is East Side 32, Cleveland 30.

Cleveland will get the ball back and have one last chance to win. With 22 seconds left, it lines up for what could be a game-winning field goal from more than 40 yards out.

On the Cleveland side, Coleman-Dancer, who ran for two touchdowns, including a 41-yard run, can do no more. Across the field, East Side’s Traveyon Craig, who ran for nearly 100 yards in the first quarter alone, as well as a touchdown and three two-point conversions, can only watch.

The ball is snapped a little high, but the holder reaches up and gets a grip on it. The kick flickers in the air and is on line. When it lands, though, it’s a couple of yards short of the goal post. No good.

At 9:34 p.m., the final football game between Cleveland’s two high schools concluded: East Side 32, Cleveland 30.

September 23, 2016 - Cleveland, MS: East Side High School's head football coach hoists the "Battle for 61" trophy in the air during a group photo on the field at Delta State University. East Side beat Cleveland 32-30 in the game.

East Side High School’s head football coach hoists the “Battle for 61” trophy in the air during a group photo on the field at Delta State University. East Side beat Cleveland 32-30 in the game.

Andrea Morales for The Undefeated

East Side’s players and fans storm the field, dancing, doing backflips and lifting babies in the air. The two teams line up to shake hands and hug, with some on the Cleveland side crying. For the underclassmen on both rosters, there’s a good chance many of them will be teammates next year.

Woodard, drenched in sweat and the water dumped on him after the game, is asked if he knew the kick was short.

“You want the truth or a lie?” he responds. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t see the field goal. I had my head down.”

Loading on to the bus for the short drive back to East Side, the team is dancing, posting videos and photos to Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Woodard, who is behind the wheel, knows that what both schools just did could help the city through the history-making consolidation.

“If this is the last one between us,” he says, “that’s a great way to go out.”

East Side High’s football team pulls out of the Delta State University stadium after defeating the Cleveland High team 32-30.

Andrea Morales for The Undefeated

Liner Notes

The video in this piece was produced by Osman Noor.

Timothy Bella is a features journalist based in Washington, D.C., whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic and The New York Times.