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Mississippi’s Crusading Gadfly

Mississippi’s Crusading Gadfly
While others maintain the fight is over, attorney Alvin Chambliss continues to breathe life into Mississippi’s famed college desegregation case.
By B. Denise Hawkins


Attorney Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. says that as long as the Ayers v. Fordice case is alive, there’s hope for Mississippi’s three historically Black universities and for the liberation of Black America. Chambliss should know. For more than a quarter century he stubbornly has breathed life into Ayers, the protracted legal battle over the desegregation of Mississippi’s higher education system.

Last spring, just as a $503 million settlement was approved by the 2002 Mississippi Legislature, signed by a federal judge and poised to put the litigation to rest, Chambliss decided to vigorously resuscitate the higher education desegregation case he has been synonymous with for 27 years (see Black Issues, May 10, 2001).

Late last month when most people were counting down the days until Christmas, Chambliss was ticking off the 29 days before he would file “the big brief” in mid-January. “When it comes together, this appeal will represent everything that we ever did in the Ayers case,” Chambliss says.

The filing date is symbolic. It was 28 years ago this month that Jake Ayers Sr. filed the lawsuit in January 1975 on behalf of his son and other Black college students in Mississippi. Ayers, a factory worker and local civil rights activist from the tiny town of Glen Allan, Miss., accused the state of operating a segregated higher education system. He argued that Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State universities were unequal, neglected and woefully underfunded compared to the state’s five majority-White universities. In 1986, Ayers died never having seen the case reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Department of Justice, long critical of Mississippi’s higher education system, sided with the plaintiffs. U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. ruled in 1987 that the state had done enough to end segregation in higher education. But in its 1992 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court called the predominantly Black institutions inferior and underfunded. The high court then ordered Mississippi to remove all vestiges of its dual system.

But many of the court’s proposed remedies angered Black plaintiffs who felt they already were shouldering the brunt of dismantling the segregated system. Among the remedies — an imposition of uniform admissions standards for all state universities as well as the creation of special financial incentives to attract White students to HBCUs. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1997 that Mississippi’s public colleges and universities were still identifiable as White or Black despite more than a decade of litigation.

At his Houston home turned legal office, Chambliss rummages among the 15 boxes of legal transcripts from hearings in the landmark case dating back to 1975. He knows there should be 16 boxes, and is angry he can’t get the court to give him the materials he needs to help him wage his next fight. He says withholding the records is not only illegal, but also racist. “They don’t expect for me to make a showing, but I’m going to do it anyway,” vows a determined Chambliss.

For Chambliss, his dedication to Ayers is akin to a religious calling. In 1998, Jake Mills, an aide to Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice, called Chambliss foolhardy when he walked away from a $3.5 million payday he was poised to earn in legal fees and expenses when the state attempted an Ayers settlement. Thinking back, Chambliss says, “I would have been financially secure for the rest of my life, but that’s not what this is about.”

Two years later in 2002, U.S. Congressman and original Ayers plaintiff Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., attempted another settlement in which Chambliss and more than a dozen other attorneys and organizations affiliated with the case over time would have shared $2.5 million in fees. Again, Chambliss decided not to settle or receive payment. Thompson did not return calls for this story.

In a Feb. 15, 2002, news release issued on the judgment in the Ayers settlement, Thompson embraced the agreement, calling the $503 million “a down payment on the equal education opportunities for students who chose to attend Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State universities.

Chambliss’ dedication has not come without consequences. He was a law professor at Houston’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University until last summer, when he lost his teaching post. He blames Mississippi legislators for coercing university administrators into dismissing him because of his appeals in the Ayers litigation.

“Texas Southern didn’t give me any real reason for dismissing me,” recalls Chambliss, who had a three-year contract with the law school. He says he was not notified in writing that he would be terminated until Aug. 29, (2002) the start of a new academic year.

Chambliss also claims that his vigorous pursuit of the landmark litigation cost him his job as a staff attorney with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, where he worked immediately before taking the position at Texas Southern.

To some in the state and in the higher education community, the fiery Chambliss is a thorn in the side they wish would just go away. They charge that he is the only thing standing between Mississippi’s three HBCUs and the multimillion-dollar settlement on the table. His opponents are virtually assured that his appeal will be rejected. But if Chambliss has his way, Ayers will find its way back before the U.S. Supreme Court. “That’s all we have to pray for,” Chambliss says. “We’re close.”

The settlement includes $246 million to be spent over 17 years on academic programs and $75 million for capital improvements. Mississippi’s College Board also has agreed to establish a private endowment.

Jackson State, the largest of the three HBCUs, can’t move forward with the construction of a $20 million school of engineering building. Alcorn State is poised to launch a multimillion-dollar biotechnology program at its Lorman campus. Alcorn State and the small, beleaguered Mississippi Valley State have never had much done for them by the state, Chambliss says, adding that those two schools would have been shut down if it weren’t for the Ayers case.

“I’ve always maintained that without Al Chambliss, there wouldn’t have been an Ayers case,” says Roy Hudson, Mississippi Valley’s vice president for university relations. But like many other HBCU administrators in the state, Hudson has watched over time with angst as closure of the lawsuit neared then ebbed away.

In this latest legal saga, Hudson points to Chambliss.

“Chambliss is a major factor in preventing a final resolution … for whatever reason he isn’t ready for it to end. I respect that,” Hudson adds.

Resolution for Mississippi Valley State, Hudson says, means realizing much-needed academic programs, strengthening instructional programs, a library expansion and a new science and technology building.

Mississippi’s eight universities are reeling from nearly $100 million in budget cuts since 2000, and the three HBCUs need funding more than ever. But Chambliss insists that Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State should have received a great deal more money — even while the appeals are pending. With another tumultuous budget year predicted when the 2003 Legislature meets this month, Dr. D.E. Magee Jr., who chaired the College Board’s Ayers Committee in Mississippi, says a disbursement of settlement funds to the Black institutions is more critical than ever.

For Chambliss, Jake Ayers’ widow and the other plaintiffs he still represents, “Ayers was never about money.” In fact, the appeal Chambliss is preparing to deliver this month is expected to devote only a few pages to the multimillion-dollar settlement.

“The court doesn’t even explain how the settlement will enhance academic programs or cure other defects or make education equal,” Chambliss says. “It’s just some money thrown at the problem.”

Lillie Ayers agrees. “I respect everybody’s opinion, but I think when you look at the settlement package, what makes us think that because we have a settlement we have achieved what we set out to do in this case?” the 75-year-old widow asks.

When the Ayers family enlisted Chambliss to wage their legal fight against the Magnolia State, they were concerned about equalizing the state’s public Black universities and preserving their existence.

Nearly three decades ago Lillie and Jake Ayers and those who made up the state’s Black civil rights engine filed the case so that Mississippi’s higher education system would include, not exclude, Black universities. “We thought that Black colleges could simply be preserved with an upgrade,” says Ayers, who says she believes in Chambliss’ legal strategy and in keeping her husband’s dream alive.

More is at stake now than preserving Black colleges and universities, Chambliss warns. The Ayers settlement, he contends, doesn’t address what Black universities need to be viable and competitive or what the nation’s Black students need to be educated en masse.

“I’m not concerned about the Black talented tenth, they’re going to make it,” Chambliss explains.” Rather, he is “concerned about the 90 percent who are excluded, left behind and marginalized.”

Reaching back for that 90 percent means ensuring that HBCUs stay around. They must offer graduate and professional programs that can help create access and a critical mass of professionals and those with terminal degrees; offer open admission standards that stimulate the college-going rate; and a system of governance that allows these institutions to operate without the strict state structure.

The plaintiff’s wish list for Mississippi’s Black universities would reflect such a shift. For example, to keep them viable and competitive with the state’s majority institutions, Jackson State must be granted more professional schools; Mississippi Valley State should be designated the school of choice for courses needed to complete the first two years of nursing school; and Alcorn State should be allocated a portion of land-grant and extension funds.

In what may be the last legal push Chambliss wages for Ayers, he ponders the weightiness of all that is riding on this latest appeal. Wrapped up in the paper chase and wrangling over millions of dollars are the hopes and dreams of the Ayers family and the other plaintiffs, some of whom have passed on or who are watching grandchildren matriculate. For them and countless other Black Mississippians, Chambliss says, “Ayers is their 40 acres and a mule.”

Ayers Takes Shape

Glen Allan, Miss., with a population of roughly 300, is so small, Lillie Ayers jokes, that no one even calls it a city. But during the 1950s and ’60s, Jake Ayers stirred things up when he challenged public school educators, and again later when he set in motion a legal battle that would put Glen Allan, if not on the map, on the minds of those who monitored higher education.

Chambliss was not long out of the prominent Howard University School of Law when he befriended Jake Ayers and decided to help him take on the state. But even then, Chambliss already had taken on at least 50 desegregation cases in his work at Mississippi’s Legal Services.

Jake Ayers was infamous for his public challenge of the state’s segregated public school system. “Jake realized that colleges and universities may be in the same shape that he found public schools to be in,” Lillie Ayers remembers. “That’s when he decided to file the suit.”

This Black man’s battle for equal education was fraught with intermittent danger, but it was waged with courage and determination. Ayers’ activism got the father of eight fired in 1955 from his job at the Greenville Mill, and brought a burning cross to his family’s small front lawn. But the flames didn’t extinguish his fight.

Years later, in 1986, an accidental fire consumed the Ayers’ longtime family home in Glen Allan. Every news clip and piece of memorabilia of the litigation was destroyed. But the fire didn’t erase the memories Lillie Ayers thoughtfully ushers forth with vivid detail when asked about the 30-year-old case that bears her family’s name.

Jake Ayers took to calling Alvin Chambliss, the Mississippi born, city-trained lawyer, his “torney.” Ayers wasn’t a passive client. He wanted to know what Chambliss was plotting at every turn in the case.

Chambliss, once a star Jackson State linebacker, could have taken his Hall of Fame football career to the pros like many of his teammates, but he didn’t.

Practicing law and “uplifting the race,” Chambliss says, were always his childhood callings, not a career in football.

Chambliss often utters the name of his “hero,” Thurgood Marshall, when he speaks of Ayers and the case’s ability to set a precedent for transforming higher education access for Black students across the nation. Like Marshall, Chambliss blazed trails at Howard University’s law school and channeled concern for “the race” into action. While a Howard law student, Chambliss took his activism to the streets of Washington. It was the height of the civil rights movement and the resounding message of the day was “educate your own,” Chambliss recalls.

“It became clear to me then that the struggle was going to be about the mind, education and separate schools for Blacks,” Chambliss explains. That’s what thrust him and his classmates into the intersection of law and education with all of the zeal of firebrands. Further motivated by a belief that “the root problem of public education is not to educate Black people,” Chambliss says he and fellow law students decided to set up storefront Afro-centric schools for Washington’s Blacks.

Chambliss later harnessed that energy and took it with him back to his roots in Mississippi. Since his Howard law school days, Chambliss has become well-versed in education policy and activism. He is a staunch civil rights attorney and counts himself among a dying breed in the profession. He is not an educator, but the attorney, considered by some to be one of Black higher education’s best champions, rants and boasts about taking on the associations at One Dupont Circle, higher education’s powerhouse in the nation’s capital, legendary Black civil rights organizations or HBCUs’ advocacy organizations.

“I’m ready to debate with anyone in America on higher education policy,” Chambliss says.

But back in Glen Allan, Lillie Ayers knows this month is pivotal to the case as another appeal goes forward. But she says she takes comfort in knowing that whatever happens this year, “Alvin is still fighting for the plaintiffs.

“I believe in Al and I know he will continue until he’s exhausted every legal opportunity to support the fight,” Lillie Ayers says. “He has always been a fighter who would go after what our Black universities needed.”

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