This proud southern city, where the tang of sawn lumber and oven-fresh breads scent the air, has seen its schools altered by 30 years of court-ordered desegregation. Classes are more racially mixed. New roofs and better teacher pay have come to some once-poor schools.
But one glaring statistic hints, to some, that racism remains: While 90 percent of the high school football players are African-American, all 16 coaches are white. This in a town where football may be second only to whole-hog barbecue in importance.
That discrepancy is the source of considerable tension here, as a court-mandated biracial committee created to promote diversity struggles with how to overcome persistent racial separation recommending, for instance, that a black football coach be hired at a high school.
While the coaching dilemma isn't typical of every southern town, it represents a broader challenge faced by cities across the country particularly here in the Deep South. Though progress has been made in changing classroom makeup, the teaching, coaching, and principal positions remain disproportionately white.
That, in turn, is raising sensitive questions about whether the courts are still needed to correct imbalances or whether the town can do it without the mandates of a berobed judge. "Conditions have changed so radically in the South that I don't see systems reverting back to the way they were, even if the courts leave," says David Armor, a desegregation expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Certainly, progress has been made in this busy, once-divided way point along the truck-laden I-40. Blacks and whites mingle in libraries and restaurants. New neighborhoods are increasingly integrated, and blacks are fixing up an area of broken-down Victorians downtown.
But for all the headway, say critics, vestiges of institutional racism endure here amid the last ripples of the western Appalachians.
"We have a lot to be proud of, but we also have yet to erase many things that we are not proud of" says Maxine Stewart, an African-American former principal. She sees Jackson as a town with a pleasant veneer, but with smoldering racism. Indeed, just two years ago, a black landlord here awoke to find a cross burning on his lawn and racial epithets in his mailbox.
Dr. Stewart is a member of the biracial committee created last year to promote school diversity as part of an agreement between the school system, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the US Justice Department.
Their recommendation that a black football coach be hired to fill a vacancy at Southside High isn't their only suggestion. Noting that many African-Americans have struggled to pass exams required to become licensed teachers, the committee has urged the board to provide more tutoring. At present, only 24 percent of teachers are black though African-Americans make up 55 percent of the student population. "We have an appearance problem," admits George Freeman, a whiteassistant superintendent of Jackson-Madison schools.
Still, the remaining divisions may be more a result of economics and aspirations than institutional racism, he says. Huge food-packing firms and plastics plants now exist downtown offering jobs for a black middle class that might otherwise have pursued teaching.
Southside's white principal, Jimmy Arnold, says finding a black coach is difficult because there are so few minority teachers in the school system. "We're looking for teachers, first and foremost," he says."We'd like to hire a minority ..., but they'll have to be good teachers first."
Although there are currently no African-American coaches, the district has had four black assistant football coaches in recent years, "I'm not going to put up a 'non-minorities need not apply' sign," says Mike Martin, the whiteathletic director at Northside High School. "But we are making a concerted effort to find minority candidates. We know they're good role models for the kids. But it's been tough."
Local proponents of affirmative action argue that the superintendent could easily override the Southside principal, and appoint one of the district's black junior-high coaches to the position.
"If we needed some good players, they'd be ... finding them," says African-American school-board member Joe Mays. With many blacks coaching other sports, at both high schools and junior highs, their absence in the city's premier sport hints, he says, at a white power structure refusing to give up leadership positions.
Mr. Mays cites other evidence that racism persists. While all three of the high schools are integrated, it's mostly white students who land in honors classes, while blacks fill out the remedial classes, he says.
Many also complain that it's mostly black students who have to be bused, since white parents, who tend to be wealthier, can often afford private schools if they don't like the public options.
Racial bias does remain here, admits John Graham, a well-known white community member on the biracial committee. Still, he counters, this was the only county in the US that, in 1990, voluntarily agreed to consolidate its schools after a referendum.
In the end, the search for a new coach here which should end this summer will likely not affect the court's decision to lift control, which could happen as soon as five new schools are completed in four years.
"We've shown to the courts that we'll do what's right for the kids," says Gene Cain, a white school-board member here. "Soon, we'll show the world."