The Trial: Round Two for Fordice Mississippi Higher Education Back in Court

Article excerpt

The Trial: Round Two for Fordice Mississippi Higher Education Back in. Court

by B. Denise Hawkins

OXFORD, MS -- There is no inlaid Italian marble on display at the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services office. It is a spare, windowless, storefront decked in brown paneling, sandwiched between a Black-owned dress shop and a dingy grocery store.

The waiting area consists of worn carpet and stiff plastic chairs. A small brass bell attached to the front door tolls for those who pass through in search of justice.

Yet, for all its simplicity, the office houses a revolution in social and political change that, for nearly 20 years, has maneuvered to thwart state efforts to close key Black universities -- a move legal services officials regard as a naked defiance of the late Jake Ayers Sr.'s dream of equalizing education for Mississippi's Black children.

On the Friday before the state and the Black plaintiffs were poised to return to court, the back conference room of the law office was a quiet storm. At 4:45 p.m., nearly the close of the work week, it looked like moving day.

As fast as staffers could maneuver around long conference tables and wade through ankle-deep legal documents, boxes bound for the downtown courthouse were being whisked out the door and into a waiting mini-van.

Another Bitter Battle

But on Monday, May 9, those determined to unravel the confounding 19-year-old higher education drama known locally as the Ayers case, began their journey, for a second time, down a familiar legal path. Attorneys, three Black-college presidents, students, families and state lawmakers who gathered here occupied the same 80-seat, downtown courtroom they did in 1987 when U.S. District Court Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. dismissed the initial desegregation case.

This time the plaintiffs and the state are again engaged in another bitter battle over how Mississippi should comply with a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to end all traces of segregation in its eight universities, three of which are historically Black.

The case, which has sparked national attention, began in 1975 when the late Jake Ayers Sr., along with 20 other plaintiffs, sued the state for operating two systems of higher education -- one for whites and a separate, unequal one for African Americans. Ayers, who said he filed the suit on behalf of his nine children, died in 1986 of a heart attack at 66.

In his opening statement, William Goodman, lead attorney for the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning -- also known as the College Board -- accused the plaintiffs of wanting to lower academic standards for Black students and creating steep walls of racial separation.

Said Goodman: "If Black students of yesterday received an inadequate education, it was the fault of white people. But today, if an inadequate education is what awaits Black students, it will be the fault of certain Blacks in power who push for quantity instead of quality."

Ripping into the plaintiffs' proposal, which includes steps to redress admissions policies they say have long excluded Blacks from university ranks, Goodman told the still-sitting Judge Biggers, "They are proposing no standards at all. Their plan is to encourage Black high school students not to take the core curriculum.

"They think that with a high school diploma they have an automatic road map into graduate and professional schools. I hope Black parents of the state will hear this and react."

But Robert Pressman, a Cambridge, MA-based attorney for the plaintiffs, in his opening argument, calmly pitched a simple plan for integration -- access to higher education for all African American students.

"Segregation is but one form of racial discrimination," Pressman argued. "You can't be segregated if policy and practice denies you access to the universities."

Pressman told Biggers that the state's plan to close the historically Black Mississippi Valley State University by merging it with traditionally white Delta State would automatically limit the number of Black students attending college. …