After a 30-year battle over the Ayers case, Attorney Alvin Chambliss fights
for his own settlement
By B. Denise Hawkins
The long-time lead attorney in a decades-old higher education desegregation battle that ended three months ago when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a final appeal wants to get paid for his services, but not with “blood money,” he says.
After shepherding more than a dozen Black Mississippi plaintiffs in the landmark Ayers v. Fordice case for nearly 30 years, Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. says he never would have agreed to a $503 million settlement agreement as restitution for the state’s three historically Black universities or a portion of the $2.5 million the court allocated for attorneys’ fees. In late December, $1 million in attorneys’ fees was delivered to the U.S. District Court in Oxford, Miss. But an angry Chambliss says there is no room for negotiation with him for doing 30 years of work that left him and his family “virtually bankrupt.”
He wants to hand the state of Mississippi a bill for at least $3.5 million.
According to court records, Chambliss was not a part of a May 2002 meeting when five other attorneys involved with the case agreed on how their fees would be allocated. Chambliss also didn’t participate in a December 2004 meeting with Isaac Byrd — who became the lead attorney in Ayers when Chambliss was battling colon cancer — and other attorneys where attorneys’ fees and the settlement were discussed.
“I haven’t been a part of any negotiation for attorneys’ fees and shouldn’t be subject to a pre-determined amount, especially for spending 30 years of my life on this case,” contends Chambliss, who is determined to seek a fee award that is not limited by the amount specified in the settlement agreement. A federal judge will ultimately determine how the attorneys’ fees will be distributed.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t fight for what I’m due,” says Chambliss. “It goes against the grain for me to fight for 30 years to break the yoke of bondage for Black students and for me to accept a yoke of bondage on myself. I don’t want a dime of the $2.5 million. It relegates lawyers to slavery.”
Chambliss argues that for him, the legal battle he decided to take on in 1975 when Jake Ayers Sr., a determined Black parent from Glen Allen, Miss., sought his help in suing the state for neglecting and under funding its three Black public institutions, has never just been about securing a sizeable settlement. What Chambliss says what he wants for Mississippi’s Black students is increased access to a college education, more financial aid and for Jackson State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University to be free to chart their own academic programs and govern themselves separate from the state’s College Board.
The plaintiffs, who included Ayers’ widow, also maintain that the settlement does not address key Title VI deficiencies such as governance, mission and the establishment of unique graduate and professional programs that the Black universities need to remain relevant. They also bristle about nearly half of the settlement’s proceeds that go to support scholarships earmarked for White students at Mississippi’s Black public universities.
Searching for a Legal Dream Team
While the courts have declared the legal chapter on the Ayers case closed, Chambliss is keeping a watchful eye on the state that has yet to identify and disperse payment to the Black schools. Chambliss, now a professor in the School of Education at Indiana University in Bloomington, is gearing up for what could be one of the most personal legal battles of his career — his own. The civil rights attorney is preparing to launch a personal crusade that may again take him to the U.S. Supreme Court and he’s eager to assemble a legal dream team with “deep pockets” to help him do it.
“I’d like to put together a legal dream team that will stay together for the duration of the litigation and all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And if I can’t find the people I need, I’ll make do with whomever I have. I know the Lord will provide,” Chambliss says.
Having the noted Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney John Payton represent him would be a coup, Chambliss admits. Payton and his firm, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, in 2003 represented the University of Michigan in the landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race as a factor in admissions.
Chambliss’ legal brain trust could also include George C. Cochran, a constitutional law professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law and James Douglas, the former president of Texas Southern University and a distinguished law professor at its Thurgood Marshall School of Law. The cost to litigate his case, Chambliss says, could cost in excess of $1 million in attorneys’ fees and an estimated $100,000 in other costs and expenses.
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