The Epitome of Inequality

By Evelyn, Jamilah | Black Issues in Higher Education, November 26, 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Epitome of Inequality

Evelyn, Jamilah, Black Issues in Higher Education

Alabama's all-but-level higher education playing field is a case study in what's wrong with higher education's commitment to equity and diversity

Two months ago when the Southern Education Foundation released the findings of its latest report, Miles To Go, it sparked widespread pandemonium among those concerned about the fate of minorities in higher education.

The foundation reported that the nineteen states that once operated dual systems of higher education have made little progress in guaranteeing educational opportunities for African Americans, even alter more man thirty years of court-ordered "affirmative steps." The report's grim statistics highlighted state-by-state inequities characteristic of the South's separate and unequal educational opportunities that still exist today.

"It's not a popular issue in the South, not because people are walking around as pointy-headed racists anymore, but because they'd rather ignore it and hope it will go away," said the study's author, Robert Kronley. "But the evidence shows that we're nor going to be able to close our eyes and will these problems away."

At the heart of the nation's struggle to dismantle the effects of segregation in higher education is the state of Alabama. Deep-South that it embodies, this bellwether state, with its forty-eight colleges and universities, typifies the lack of headway the states have made in leveling the playing field.

This is the state where thirty-five years ago, then-Gov. George Wallace made his famous "stand in the school-house door." On the surface, it was a physical attempt to prevent the University of Alabama's first two Black students from attending. Symbolically, it illustrated the state's contumacious resistance to integration.

Today, Black students still don't have comparable access to the state's "flagship" colleges. Majority White public institutions set up shop and duplicate programs just minutes from historically Black schools and nearly 75 percent of Black students attending public institutions still remain at two-year and historically Black institutions.

It is in this land, where confederate flags wave ominously from roof tops, that the cost of college tuition equals more than 10 percent of the average Black family income.

Alabama, with all its men of good will and altruism, epitomizes the unlevel playing field.

Knight v. Alabama

De jure segregation in higher education officially ended in the South in 1972, when a court order in the Adams case mandated that the states cease from continuing these practices and policies. The court also required each state to submit to the United States Education Department a plan to desegregate its public colleges and universities. Alabama's plan was rejected and forwarded to the Department of Justice.

On January 15, 1981, Montgomery attorney John F. Knight, and others, filed a lawsuit in the Middle District of Alabama contending that segregation was part of an official state policy of White supremacy in higher education. The policy was enforced, according to the plaintiffs, with negligible endowments, discriminatory funding practices, restricted missions for some universities, program duplication, limited integration of HBCUs, and White control over public education for Blacks, among other things.

Two years later, Alabama State University and Alabama A&M University -- the state's two historically Black universities -- joined the U.S. government in a similar suit. The courts found in favor of the plaintiffs in U.S. v. Alabama in 1985.

But the state appealed and in 1987, portions of the plaintiffs case were dismissed in U.S. v. Alabama. The cases were then combined with Knight's lawsuit and the litigation became known as Knight v. Alabama.

In 1991, U.S. District Judge Harold S. Murphy issued an 840-page court order. After ten painstaking years of listening to the testimony of some 200 witnesses and perusing 20,000 pages of transcripts, Murphy ruled that the vestiges of de jeru segregation had indeed impeded the progress of Black students in the state.

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