Ayers Case Ends After Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Appeal
The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal of a Mississippi college desegregation lawsuit, ending a 29-year-old legal battle over state support of three historically Black universities.
Officials say the state can now enforce a $503 million settlement designed to correct past neglect of Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State universities.
“We’re very relieved to have this case settled once and for all,” Higher Education Commissioner David Potter said in a written statement. “Our historically Black universities need this money to help improve their campus facilities, build on existing programs and strengthen the areas they deem appropriate.”
The state and most plaintiffs agreed in 2002 to a settlement that would distribute $503 million over 17 years to the three historically Black universities. Payments have been on hold pending appeals by a small group of plaintiffs, including Lillie Ayers of Glen Allan, widow of Jake Ayers Sr., who filed the suit in 1975 on behalf of his children and other Black college students.
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., was one of the original plaintiffs in the Ayers case and helped craft the settlement agreement. In a recent news release, he said the $503 million is “a floor, not a ceiling” for what the historically Black universities need.
“I look forward to working with each of these institutions, making sure that the ugly arm of segregation never shows up in higher education again,” Thompson said.
Lillie Ayers told The Associated Press that she’s disappointed the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. But she says the lawsuit prompted changes that will help Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State.
“I feel like it has been beneficial so far,” Lillie Ayers said. “The schools did get some money. We didn’t get 100 percent of what we asked for but we got something, so it wasn’t a total loss.”
Alvin Chambliss Jr. is a civil rights lawyer who represented the plaintiffs through most of the Ayers case but not in the 2002 settlement. He continued to represent Lillie Ayers and other plaintiffs who wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a further appeal.
“God’s will be done,” Chambliss said from Indiana University, where he’s now on faculty. “We fought hard and long. It is at an end, as I see it, in terms of a legal strategy.”
He said he hopes legislators will set aside more money to expand academic offerings at Mississippi’s historically Black universities. Chambliss wants to see a law school at Jackson State, for example. The state’s only publicly funded law school is at the University of Mississippi.
Jake Ayers Sr. died in 1986 without ever seeing the lawsuit go to court. In 1987, more than 70 people testified during a five-week trial before U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. in Oxford. Biggers dismissed the lawsuit, and plaintiffs appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
In 1990, the appeals court agreed with the dismissal and Chambliss appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled Mississippi hadn’t done enough to eliminate segregation, and the case was sent back to Biggers, who presided over a second trial in 1994.
In 1995, Biggers issued a ruling that called for new admissions standards. After a series of appeals, then Gov. Ronnie Musgrove announced out-of-court settlement talks in 2000. Biggers approved the $503 million settlement in 2002 after state lawmakers assured him they’d fund it.
Chambliss said that the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear another Ayers appeal spells the end of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which outlawed public school desegregation 50 years ago.
“Brown is just as dead now as Martin Luther King is,” Chambliss said. “I hate to say that, but he is dead and so is Brown.”
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