Ayers Case Now In Hands of 5th Circuit
Ayers Case Now In Hands of 5th Circuit
By Earnest McBride
©2003. The Jackson Advocate, Jackson, Mississippi. Posted by permission.
Boosted by a rally of black students, educators and civil rights activists gathered in New Orleans Monday from across the nation, Attorney Alvin O. Chambliss, Jr., presented the long-anticipated appeal of the Ayers settlement that was purportedly made to compensate black students and Mississippi's three historically black colleges for over a century of neglect and racial discrimination.
"Attorney Alvin Chambliss presented a powerful case for upholding the original intent of the Jake Ayers lawsuit against Mississippi and its institutions of higher education," says Paula Powell, national spokesperson for the National Association of African American Students. "We're waiting for Mississippi to decide now whether it will live up to its obligations to the black citizens and students resident there."
Chambliss and a team of highly-motivated lawyers presented the case seeking to rework and expand the $503 million settlement that the original plaintiffs in the case rejected, although a revisionist of group plaintiffs headed by U. S. Congressman Bennie Thompson accepted it. Chambliss had been the attorney for the Ayers plaintiffs for more than 25 years, but was ushered out of the case by North Mississippi Legal Services shortly before the settlement was laid before U. S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers. Jackson Attorney Isaac Byrd, who was in New Orleans as a member of the opposing team, had replaced Chambliss in the final months of the original lawsuit.
"The issue is whether the Court will see fit to offer relief to the appellants in this case," Chambliss says. "What we asked for won't cost the state of Mississippi one cent in the initial stage. Our concern is that the original plan of offering black students equal educational opportunity, as was stated under Plessy versus Ferguson in 1896, and equal access to all levels of professional preparation, which was included in the spirit of Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 and 1955, be put in place."
One of the great ironies of the Ayers agreement is the adverse effect it has had on improving education for black students, particularly in the entering freshman classes since 1975. Black freshman enrollment is down more than 56 percent at the state's three predominantly black institutions ---Alcorn State University, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley University. Black freshman enrollment today is down by more than 31 percent in all the state's colleges, including the five major white campuses.
One of the most disturbing provisions of the Ayers agreement is the set aside of $246 million, more than 45 percent of the settlement money, for black colleges to attract white students to their campuses. Some critics view this as punishing black colleges and students for the long neglect of the state, which deliberately made the black institutions unattractive to serious students of whatever color.
Educational researchers have determined that for equal access to exist today, there should 2500 blacker freshman entering the black schools each year. And the projection is for 10,000 more black students overall in the white sector. Equal access to higher education would indicate at least 26,000 black students in the entire system. Today, there are only 16,000.
Even the Ayers agreement signed on to by the State of Mississippi acknowledged that the state and the traditionally white institutions of higher learning were culpable in the denial of equal education to black students. The Notice of the Proposed Settlement of Class Action Involving Mississippi's Public Universities was addressed to: "All black citizens residing in Mississippi, whether students, former students, parents, employees or taxpayers, who have been, are, or will be discriminated against on account of race in receiving equal educational opportunity and/or equal opportunity in the universities operated by the Board of Trustees of State Instructions of Higher Learning."
The State also recognized its own fault and the general culpability of its white colleges in the denial of the rights of Black Mississippians. The introduction to the Settlement Agreement reads as follows:
"The Agreement is made by Bennie G. Thompson, on behalf of himself and the class of persons identified below (collectively the Class), the United States of America, the Governor of the State of Mississippi in his official capacity, and the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning ("The Board"). The Board enters into this Agreement on behalf of itself and the following other defendants in this proceeding: Delta State University, Mississippi State University, Mississippi University for Women, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Southern Mississippi; and, in their official capacities, the institutional executives of such universities, the Commissioner of Higher Education, and the individual members of the Board."
Faced by a number of almost insurmountable problems ---missing court records, a tight timeline, and inadequate funds to carry out the necessary preparation--- Chambliss attributes his success to divine intervention.
"Three angels descended from heaven and helped to work a miracle in getting this case ready for presentation on time," Chambliss says. "He introduced three members of his legal team ---Destiny Allen of Portland, Oregon; Linda Dunson of Huntsville, TX; and Eric McFerer of Memphis--- to the court as his "Angels."
"They gave up their jobs and left their families to come and set up a round-the-clock work session for 30 days. And we were able to get our work in order to present to the Court."
The two other members of Chambliss' team of lawyers included James M. Douglass, den emeritus of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, and Morris L. Overstreet, former justice of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the equivalent of Mississippi's Supreme court. Overstreet is the only black justice to have served at such a high level in the Texas court system.
The three-judge panel sitting on the Fifth Circuit Court allowed 30 minutes each to Chambliss and to the attorney representing the state of Mississippi.
Presenting the case before the justices was not the problem for Chambliss and his team. They were confronted with an incredibly long delay in obtaining the court records. Then the lead attorney, working alone at first, was then hit with a strict deadline. In reconstituting the misplaced records, court officials tended to include some materials that were not part of the case, causing additional headaches for the greatly understaffed Ayers team. Working alone, Chambliss was plagued by the possibility of failing the trusting widow of Jake Ayers and the 11 other appellants he has continued to represent, despite being severed from the original case by his former employers.
"If we had failed to present our briefs on time, despite the massive amount of materials confronting us," says Chambliss, "then the result would have been the denial of the appeal."
Dr. Alex Acholonu, Faculty Senate president at Alcorn, was one of the several hundred sojourners attending the New Orleans rally in support of the appeal team.
"We were joined by a very good number of people from many different areas," says Acholonu. "I thought that Mr. Chambliss presentation was just excellent. I found the entire event very impressive and very favorable to our cause."
"It's a very complex case," says Powell, who works at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "But I hope the State of Mississippi would see these (black colleges) as American public institutions. And when we make these schools what they should be, then it's a win-win situation for everyone."
Chambliss and his team argued on the basis of guarantees of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, along with rights covered under Title VI of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.
Chambliss is determined to see the case through to its final resolution.
"We're going all the way as long as Mrs. Ayers and the 11 plaintiffs say they want relief."
The court decision may come in anywhere between two weeks to 30 or even 90 days, depending on how much discussion and dissent crops during the deliberations.