Court Hears Arguments in Mississippi College Desegregation Appeal
The $503 million settlement reached in the Mississippi college desegregation case is “unconstitutional, unreasonable and unfair” to the state’s three historically Black universities, a lawyer for plaintiffs opposed to the deal told a federal appeals court early last month.
Alvin O. Chambliss Jr., representing alumni and faculty of the schools, told a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the settlement has caused drastic drops in the enrollment of freshmen at Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State universities. Chambliss asked the judges to toss the settlement and give the plaintiffs a chance to negotiate a better one.
“These schools are, in my opinion, now set up for failure,” Chambliss said.
Chambliss said the schools have seen a 56 percent drop in enrollment since 1976. He said the number of first-time freshmen who are Black at the schools dropped from 2,314 in 1995 to 1,496 in 1999.
Paul Stephenson, a lawyer for the state College Board, said the drops in enrollment have occurred because more Blacks are now attending the state’s community colleges and historically White schools, such as the University of Mississippi. He called the settlement “fair, adequate and reasonable,” saying it shouldn’t be blamed for a movement of Black students into other public institutions. Stephenson asked the judges to let the settlement stand.
Last month’s hearing was the latest in ongoing litigation in the landmark Ayers case. The 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 institutions to end discrimination. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ordered remedies. In February 2002, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. signed the settlement of the case a month after the Mississippi Legislature pledged to fulfill its requirements.
Chambliss requested in March that the 5th Circuit hear demands from plaintiffs opposing the deal. Last month, however, Judges Carolyn D. King, E. Grady Jolly and James L. Dennis, gave no indication of when they would rule.
The ongoing litigation has meant that the bulk of the settlement money — intended to improve facilities, academic programs, scholarships and other needs at the universities — has been held up.
Linda Thome, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, also argued in support of the settlement, saying the appeals court already ruled in 1997 against some of the points made by the plaintiffs: that the settlement discriminated against Blacks by giving the schools too little money and by allowing the imposition of new, tougher admission standards.
The settlement calls for $246 million to be spent over 17 years on academic programs at the three schools to attract White students.
Chambliss said that money amounted to “illegal quotas.” He said insufficient funding has caused programs such as engineering and law to be dropped. “That’s why Whites don’t go to Black schools,” he said.
Another $75 million would go to capital improvement projects, $70 million to public endowments and $35 million in private endowments.
Chambliss said the money was not nearly enough to improve the schools to a level that will attract Black or White students.
— Associated Press
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