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Court to Hear Mississippi College Desegregation Appeal

Court to Hear Mississippi College Desegregation Appeal


A federal appeals court will hear arguments Nov. 3 on the settlement of Mississippi’s college desegregation case.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans was asked in March by attorney Alvin Chambliss to schedule a hearing on demands from plaintiffs opposed to last year’s deal. Chambliss, who has represented plaintiffs in the case for more than 20 years, now represents Lillie Ayers, widow of the man who filed the lawsuit, along with some professors and alumni. The plaintiffs say the settlement is unfair and far short of what the late Jake Ayers Sr. desired (see Black Issues, Jan. 16).

The college desegregation case originated in 1975 when Jake Ayers sued the state, accusing Mississippi of neglecting its Black universities for decades. Plaintiffs successfully demanded more money be put into the historically Black institutions to end discrimination. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered remedies.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. signed the $503 million settlement of the case in February 2002, a month after the Mississippi Legislature pledged to fulfill its requirements.

The hearing “will be step one,” state College Board member Bill Crawford of Meridian said. “This is the front end of the end process. I’m optimistic a settlement will ultimately come to pass. It’s unfortunate it’s taken so long. Every day of delay hurts.”

With the case lingering in federal courts, the bulk of the funds that would improve facilities, academic programs, scholarships and other needs at Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State universities are being held up, Crawford said.

Expected to join the court proceedings are attorneys for the College Board, the U.S. Department of Justice and the group of plaintiffs led by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who support the settlement of the 28-year-old case.

Mississippi Commissioner of Higher Education David Potter is expected to attend the hearing that is likely to take a couple of hours, said Pam Smith, the board’s chief public affairs officer.

Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State need the Ayers settlement funds during tough times, board officials say.

“Our schools don’t have access to the money. It is millions being held up, but that is the process,” Smith said. “At Alcorn, we have a (business) building ready to go, but no furniture.”

The settlement calls for $246 million to be spent over 17 years on academic programs at Jackson State, Alcorn and Mississippi Valley. Another $75 million would go to capital improvement projects, $70 million to public endowments and up to $35 million in private endowments. Other programs, including summer classes for struggling students, will receive the balance.

— Associated Press

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