Court to Rule if Plaintiffs Can ‘Opt Out’
Of Mississippi Desegregation Suit
U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. has some unfinished business before he rules on the proposed settlement in Mississippi’s long-running college desegregation case.
Can some of the plaintiffs in the 26-year-old case, including the widow of the man who filed the suit, separate themselves from those who want to accept the $503 million settlement?
A clerk for Biggers said earlier this month the judge will schedule a hearing in the next couple of weeks for the dissatisfied plaintiffs. They include Lillie Ayers, whose late husband, Jake Ayers, filed suit in 1975 challenging discrepancies in programs and funding at the state’s five predominantly White universities and its three historically Black colleges.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that the state still had segregated universities, and Biggers is overseeing efforts to desegregate them.
The judge spent three days earlier this month hearing the pros and cons of the proposed agreement, reached this spring after about a year of intense negotiation, in his Oxford courtroom.
Alvin Chambliss, a Texas Southern law professor and former lead attorney for the Ayers plaintiffs, said earlier this month that nationally known defense attorney Johnnie Cochran will assist Lillie Ayers in the “opt out” hearing.
The state, however, says no plaintiff has a right to pursue individual claims.
“There is no procedural or substantive basis for a named plaintiff or class representative such as Lillie B. Ayers to opt out and begin separately and anew, particularly at this stage of this prolonged class action,” Attorney General Mike Moore and lawyers for the state College Board said in a court filing in April.
College Board spokeswoman Pam Smith said earlier this month the board would not speculate on how the possibility of new or continued litigation would affect the proposed settlement.
“We’d have to review the whole matter,” she said.
Cochran and Chambliss did not immediately return phone calls.
State officials, plaintiffs and the U.S. Justice Department announced the settlement in April. It includes endowments, new academic programs and millions of dollars in payments over the next 17 years for Jackson State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University (see Black Issues, June 21).
Lillie Ayers, of Glen Allan, and some other plaintiffs say they want out of the proposed settlement because it doesn’t go far enough to desegregate the state’s public universities.
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