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Plaintiffs Seek End of Alabama College Desegregation Case


A federal judge is expected to issue an order next week that would bring an end to Alabama’s long-running college desegregation case, but some oppose the move, saying more still needs to be done.

U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy said at a fairness hearing Tuesday that he would deliver an order next week in response to the plaintiffs’ proposals to end court proceedings. Attorneys for both sides say they expect him to accept their agreements and dismiss the case, which began in 1981.

“The plaintiffs have not agreed that the vestiges of segregation have been totally eliminated,” state Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, a plaintiff, said at the hearing Tuesday. “Rather, we have agreed that the defendant — the State of Alabama — and defendant universities have complied with the decrees issued by the court and that it is not practicable to obtain further relief in court.”

Willie Strain also spoke at the hearing in Birmingham federal court, which was held to consider objections to the ending the case.

Strain filed a lawsuit in 1970 that led to a court order banning discrimination at the Auburn University-based Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, where he was assistant director of communications.

He now heads the Alabama Black Faculty Association and said ending the case would thwart progress, including the need for historically White universities and the state’s two-year college system to boost their ranks of Black faculty and administrators.

He also said the state should provide more financial assistance to low-income Black students when they attend historically White schools.

The Birmingham News reported that in a conversation before the hearing, Knight told Strain, “We firmly believe that we’ve gotten all we can get out of this.”

Murphy, based in Rome, Ga., has made numerous trips to Alabama over the years to preside over the case, which stemmed from the U.S. Department of Education’s 1979 finding that there were still traces of segregation in Alabama’s college system. The federal agency sued the state in 1981 after university leaders failed to agree on a plan to correct the problem.

Plaintiffs alleged that Alabama A&M University and Alabama State University, both historically Black institutions, suffered from a lack of programs and facilities and few White students. Meanwhile, there were not enough Black students, faculty and administrators at the predominantly White schools.

According to Knight, when the case’s mandates fully end as expected in 2014, A&M and ASU each will have received more than $200 million for such things as new academic programs, endowment trusts, diversity scholarships, new buildings and improvements.

Murphy oversaw two of the three major higher education trials in the suit and issued far-reaching rulings in 1991 and 1995. The case had appeared headed for another major trial, but the plaintiffs and the traditionally White universities began working on agreements to avoid one.

Later, a surplus in the state education budget made money available to help meet A&M’s request for additional building and repair funds, as well as the plaintiffs’ request for a meaningful need-based scholarship program.

The expected end of the case won’t end the plaintiffs’ claim that Alabama’s property tax system is a barrier to higher education for many Black and low-income students. Murphy rejected their claim that the system doesn’t generate enough revenue to be effective, and it is now before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

— Associated Press

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