Group Opposed to Desegregation Settlement
To Appeal Judge’s Ruling
A group opposed to a planned settlement of Mississippi’s college desegregation lawsuit will continue its legal fight despite money woes and a court ruling, an attorney says.
U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr., of Oxford, charged with overseeing the long-running case, refused last month to allow a number of the plaintiffs to opt out of the agreement and pursue a separate lawsuit.
Jake Ayers Sr. filed the lawsuit in 1975. His widow, Lillie Ayers, and 98 others have decided to appeal Biggers’ decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Attorney Alvin Chambliss, who represents Lillie Ayers, says the group will not abandon its legal opposition to the plan hammered out this year by the state and the lead plaintiffs.
“You have to fight it,” says Chambliss, a law professor at Texas Southern University and lead plaintiff counsel for 25 years until being replaced after he moved to another state. “I don’t know where our strength is going to come from. Maybe from the heavens. We have a lot of spirit, but our resources are very meager,” he says.
“We don’t think that Judge Biggers’ decision is the last decision in the case,” he says. “We have never won anything from Mississippi. Why should we start now?”
The Ayers lawsuit challenged discrepancies in programs and funding at the state’s five predominantly White universities and the three historically Black colleges. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that the state still had segregated universities. Biggers is overseeing efforts to desegregate them. Lillie Ayers and others said they wanted out of the proposed settlement because it doesn’t address the intent of the lawsuit (see Black Issues, June 21.)
Paul Stephenson, the attorney for the state, had argued there was no legal basis for the judge to separate the classes in the case and allow one class to continue litigation. The lead plaintiffs in the case, including U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., support the settlement.
Chambliss said the issue is not about money. He said the settlement doesn’t address admission standards or add programs that the Black institutions need to provide a quality education to all Mississippians.
“The No. 1 issue is access to higher education. That means Blacks being able to have a C average in high school and go to any four-year college they want to,” Chambliss said. “If they would let us reconstruct the settlement we could give them back $100 million if we had to.”
Chambliss said current admission standards at the historically Black institutions put the minimum ACT score at 16. While the average ACT score for Black students nationally is approximately 16, Chambliss said students in Mississippi on average score lower. He said the current admission standards result in a great number of Black students being denied a college education.
“The admission standards are the worst thing that could have happened. If you can get students then you can get programs,” he says. “If you get students then you can get facilities. You’ve got to have students.”
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