Judge Signals Approval of Mississippi Desegregation Pact
A federal judge said earlier this month he’s ready to approve a settlement in Mississippi’s long-running college desegregation case if the state Legislature assures him it supports the $500 million pact.
In a 10-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. said if lawmakers provide those assurances, he “will not stand in the way” and the settlement will be accepted by the court.
A 1975 lawsuit, filed by the late Jake Ayers Sr., on behalf of his son, claimed the state was neglecting its historically Black schools. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Ayers in 1992 and sent the case back to Biggers. The agreement to end the court case was signed by all sides in April and forwarded to Biggers.
Biggers said while the settlement has widespread support, it is expensive and hamstrings state leaders from making organizational changes in higher education for 17 years. The judge also expressed concern the settlement is not universally supported in the public and private sectors — noting some plaintiffs tried to separate themselves from the pact. Biggers said he felt the plan he had outlined for higher education in Mississippi would work better, but he was going on with the settlement anyway.
The former lead attorney for plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Alvin Chambliss, said he applauds Biggers for recognizing the proposed settlement was flawed. The U.S. Supreme Court will have the last say on whether a proposed settlement will stand, according to Chambliss.
“What the state is trying to do is wash a settlement through before there is a hearing on all this unconstitutional conduct,” says Chambliss, who now represents a group opposing the settlement. “You have some unconstitutional actions with terms of duplication of programs. The Supreme Court will have the last word on the constitutionality of these matters.”
There appeared to be little unanimity among Mississippi legislators and others in reacting to Biggers’ order.
Rep. Charlie Capps, D-Cleveland, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he will support funding a settlement only if there’s no chance disgruntled plaintiffs can bring it back to life.
“If it’s not completely and total and totally over, then I don’t support it at all,” Capps says.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said Biggers was taking the right step to close the 27-year-old case.
“The ruling demonstrates, also to the business community, that we are committed to growing a skilled and trained work force. Our students will have more access and better opportunities to pursue their career dreams here in the state,” Musgrove says.
Legislative budget leaders have not recommended setting aside money for the case in fiscal 2003, which starts July 1. Those recommendations could change during the three-month session that started earlier this month.
The settlement calls for $246 million to be spent over 17 years on academic programs at the traditionally Black institutions. An additional $75 million would go to capital improvement projects, $70 million to public endowments and up to $35 million for private endowments. Other programs, including summer classes for struggling students, will receive the balance.
The settlement also requires the historically Black universities to reach at least 10 percent non-Black enrollment for three consecutive years before they can fully control endowments.
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