Alvin Chambliss Joins Indiana University Faculty
Attorney fought Mississippi desegregation case for 30 years
Growing up poor as one of 12 children in Columbia, Miss., Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. sometimes went hungry but never lost his appetite for knowledge.
“I can say that some of the times during my high school years I was hungry,” recalled Chambliss, today a distinguished visiting professor at Indiana University Bloomington. “We didn’t starve, but we were hungry. It was a natural to go farther, because it was a sacrifice just to get out of high school.”
With the support of his family, particularly his grandmother, he earned degrees from two historically Black colleges — Jackson State University and the Howard University School of Law — and the University of California at Berkeley.
Best known as “the last original civil rights attorney in America,” Chambliss is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on a certiorari filing on the case he’s been connected with for nearly 30 years, Ayers v. Barbour, and the legal battle over support for Mississippi’s historically Black colleges.
At IU Bloomington, Chambliss will teach and work with faculty in IU’s nationally recognized School of Education and in the Department of African American and African Diaspora studies. He also wants to share with another generation of young people his experiences with several historic figures in the civil rights movement.
“Professor Chambliss has a rich background in civil rights, poverty law and civil liberties, having argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and various federal circuit courts of appeals and U.S. district courts,” said Frank Motley, IU associate vice chancellor for academic support. “Alvin is uniquely situated and qualified to share with IU students the nuts and bolts issues in education as well as social welfare and civil rights.”
Chambliss has been a faculty member at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. His other clients have included the family of James Byrd Sr., who was the victim of a cruel, hate-crime-related murder in Jasper, Texas. He also was involved in the Texas higher education desegregation cases that sought to bring funding equity to Prairie View and Texas Southern universities. His street law program won acclaim from the Texas Supreme Court, and its mock trials involved more than 40 schools in Houston.
His 30-Year Mission
In its 1992 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi’s predominantly Black institutions were inferior because they were under-funded and it called for an end to the dual system in that state, but plaintiffs disputed the steps mandated to do so. While remedies were ordered, a district court settlement did not come until February 2002, after the Mississippi Legislature pledged to fulfill its requirements.
Chambliss and other opponents, who included Ayers’ widow, believe the settlement does not address key Title VI deficiencies such as governance mission and the establishment of unique graduate and professional programs that the historically Black colleges need to remain relevant. They also said that nearly half of the settlement’s proceeds go to support White scholarships at Black schools. He believes that it does not craft an effective remedy for public Black colleges that will propel them into being research universities, which would attract all students.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans denied their appeal in January, after a district court upheld the $503 million settlement earlier. In May, Chambliss filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a ruling sometime this month (see Black Issues, Feb. 26).
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