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Activists Mobilize, Students Organize Town To Preserve Mississippi HBCUs

Alumni And Students Organize Town Hall Meetings And A Protest Rally To Pressure Mississippi Lawmakers Into Nixing College-Merger Proposal

Percy Norwood drove 100 miles from Carrollton, Miss., to participate in a protest and rally at the Mississippi Capitol on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr


The retired Coast Guard officer strode alongside several hundred other alumni, students, faculty and staff demanding “no merger, no closure and more funding” for the state’s historically Black colleges and universities

A 1968 graduate of Alcorn State University, Norwood is fervent in his support for his alma mater and for the other two statefunded HBCUs: Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State universities. All three schools are faced with a proposed merger that has sent shockwaves through the state and put HBCUs in other states on the alert that they might be next

“Were it not for Alcorn, I would not have my degree in chemistry, and I would not have become a commanding officer in the United States Coast Guard,” Norwood said. “Alcorn took me out of the cotton field – took most kids out of the cotton fields – when nobody else would.” Norwood earned a master’s degree in analytical chemistry at historically Black Tuskegee University in Alabama

“We have a responsibility to protect not only our heritage, but our legacy,” he added, echoing the sentiments of other protestors who said they owed their careers to the state’s HBCUs

The demonstration was part of an aggressive campaign to kill Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposal to restructure some Mississippi universities in an effort to save the state an estimated $35 million in the 2011 budget

One of the changes would combine Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State universities with Jackson State University

Barbour’s staff has said the savings would mainly be in administration but his office has not provided details

The reaction was swift and strong, particularly from alumni associations representing all three schools. Students and faculty also weighed in with campus forums and rallies. A task force began holding town hall meetings to mobilize the opponents

In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Alcorn State President Dr. George Ross and Jackson State President Dr. Ron Mason both expressed opposition to the proposal. “I think it is money-driven and there is no connection between the money they expect to save and the proposal they are making,” Mason said. He also called the merger concept “politically unfeasible.” Opponents of the governor’s plan also raise concerns about the impact the merger will have on students and the local communities that house the institutions. JSU, with an enrollment that was about 8,300 for the 2008-09 academic year, is the largest of the three and is located in the capital city. It is 90 miles from Alcorn State (total enrollment of about 3,600) and 120 miles from Mississippi Valley State (about 3,200)

Jackson State graduate Mandy Strong- White said the plan must be stopped

“HBCUs offer so much to each of the communities where they are located,” she said

“A merger would affect the economies of Alcorn and Valley.” Strong-White said she has “a passion for these universities.” She recalled how proud she was as a third-grader when her older brother graduated from Jackson State

“That’s when I knew it was possible for me to attend Jackson State and that I would also graduate. Some people may not understand what that means to a family.” Most speakers stressed that in addition to demanding no mergers and no closures of HBCUs, they wanted more funding to improve the existing institutions. Several speakers discussed the rich history of the schools, particularly Alcorn State, the country’s first Black land-grant college

A series of town hall meetings, organized by alumni and students, led up to the protest. A committee hearing was scheduled in the State Senate on Jan. 28. Several speakers at the rally urged the protesters to take their opposition to the Senate hearing, where all of the merger proposals will be presented. Barbour has also suggested merging predominantly White institutions Mississippi University for Women and Mississippi State University. Although there also has been opposition to that plan, it has not been as strong as the outcry against the HBCU mergers

Some Alcorn State alumni have complained that the uncertainty about the future of the institutions has made the search for a new president difficult. Ross announced his resignation in December, just weeks after Barbour proposed the merger

Ross will become president of Central Michigan University on March 1

Although the protest didn’t draw the 5,000 participants the organizers predicted it would, the respectable turnout of demonstrators encouraged the task force

Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the institutions continue to have a powerful impact on the state, noting that “90 percent of the 50 Black state legislators graduated from our HBCUs.” With several of those legislators present on the Capitol steps, Johnson said the activists would not accept a decision to merge the schools and would continue to demand adequate financial support for the existing schools. He issued a terse warning: “If you don’t fully fund them, we will shut this state down.”

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