Leaders Resign Themselves to Settlement in Mississippi Desegregation Case
Citing judicial and political realities, they opt for strategic practicality
Amid the widespread publicity surrounding the recent proposed settlement of the Mississippi higher education desegregation case, political and educational leaders are reacting with more of a sense of resignation and pragmatism than jubilation.
Late last month, Mississippi agreed to end more than a quarter-century of legal battles over the desegregation of its higher education system, reaching a $500 million settlement.
The landmark Ayers lawsuit was filed in 1975 to desegregate the state’s public colleges and universities. The suit sought to improve academic programs and facilities at Mississippi’s three historically Black colleges and universities: Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State. The suit alleged that those schools offered educational opportunities inferior to those at the state’s five traditionally White universities because of Mississippi’s history of racial discrimination.
“The settlement gives us more certainty but obtaining resources will be an ongoing problem,” says Dr. Ronald Mason, president of Jackson State University. “You can’t undo 125 years of deprivation with one settlement.”
Dr. Clinton Bristow, president of Alcorn State University, says, “No one got all that they wanted but we hope that this is the beginning of the end of a very long process.”
Congressman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., adds, “One of the issues that our side looked at was the very, very conservative nature of the courts and the future not being brighter, given the Republican White House.
“The last thing after 26 years I wanted to do was to lose everything. We looked at this as an opportunity to structure something monetarily for the Black colleges at this point, and we live to fight another day,” says Thompson.
These sentiments concerning the long and protracted nature of the litigation seem to have been just as much of the reason for the settlement as the merits of the case. Even in the settlement offer the statement is made that “the compelling reason for the Governor, the Board, the Attorney General, the Lieutenant Governor, and the speaker to execute this agreement is the achievement of finality for the Ayers litigation … when this agreement becomes final, the board will be free to fulfill its constitutional and statutory duties and responsibilities under Mississippi law wholly unfettered by the Ayers litigation except as specified in this agreement.”
Some observers say one of the reasons the agreement might eventually falter will be because the affected parties were not intensely involved with the negotiations.
“It could have been a more informed decision had the Black college presidents been more directly involved,” says Mason of Jackson State.
While agreeing that more could have been achieved, Bristow says, “It was better to settle this thing because the longer it takes for Alcorn to get an infusion of funds the further we will get behind. Mississippi State University (the state’s predominantly White land-grant university) is busy recruiting all the Black students that they can find. We can’t afford to get any further behind.”
Both Mason and Bristow see upsides to the settlement and are optimistic that their institutions will come out stronger.
“This serves as a linchpin to things we were already trying to do,” says Bristow.
Alcorn State has strong programs in agriculture and biological sciences. Under the terms of the settlement, Bristow hopes to build world-class programs in the biotechnology sciences. Jackson State, through its designation as a comprehensive university, joins Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi and will become the state’s only Black institution with that title.
Troubling questions ahead
Among the nagging questions that remain is whether Ayers Attorney Alvin Chambliss will agree to the settlement or persist, as he has for the last 26 years, in reaching what he has stated to be a fair and just settlement.
Under the terms of the settlement offer, $2.5 million has been set aside for attorney fees to be divided among Chambliss, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Center for Law and Education.
Noted higher education attorney William “Buddy” Blakey admits that he isn’t familiar with the details of the case but says the settlement raises a few basic questions. As to the settlement requirement that the Black colleges achieve and sustain for two years a White enrollment of 10 percent in order to trigger funding, he asks, “Why do they have to do anything other than enhance themselves to make themselves more attractive?” He also wonders whether the $105 million in endowment funds that is to be split by the three HBCUs is enough to make the schools attractive. “You could spend that on the engineering program alone,” says Blakey.
The 10 percent standard also troubles Marc Ward, a 2000 graduate of Alcorn State and a legislative aide to Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
“It is not inherently or logically fair to place a stricter standard on the group that is bringing the suit and not on the previously White institutions,” says Ward.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com