Miss. court to weigh fate of black college

April 27, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer

ITTA BENA, Miss. -- In the heart of the sun-baked delta, surrounded by cotton fields and catfish farms, Mississippi Valley State University is a homely remnant of a divided past.

Four decades after the end of legal segregation, the campus survives as one of the state's few black institutions. The enrollment is 99.6 percent black.

But starting next week in a federal courthouse in Oxford, 120 miles northeast of here, lawyers for the state will try to persuade a judge that in the name of integration, it's time to close the university.

The case, which was filed 19 years ago by black students and which has already gone once to the U.S. Supreme Court, revolves around a vexing question: What is to be done with the most enduring legacies of legal segregation -- historically black colleges and universities?

Whatever the outcome, the bitter dispute in Mississippi will resonate loudly in states such as Maryland that have tried with varying degrees of success to integrate their once-segregated college systems.

"I'm not advocating an all-black system or an all-white system," says Alvin O. Chambliss Jr., one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. "But I'm saying you have to keep the black colleges. Black students have to be able to go there and not deal with a lot of unnecessary racism. You have to believe we need all these students."

The black plaintiffs who are suing say that Mississippi's three predominantly black campuses deserve more money, as well as a fair share of the state's premier academic offerings, even if it means grabbing them from predominantly white campuses. Make the black campuses good enough, they say, and white students will eventually enroll, too.

"Desegregation doesn't have to be in one direction all the time," says William W. Sutton, president of Mississippi Valley State.

But state authorities say that it makes no sense to transfer successful academic programs between campuses in the name of integration. In any case, they say, few whites will ever feel comfortable enrolling at colleges that have been identified as "predominantly black" for generations.

And in an ironic twist, many whites now say that it is blacks who are resisting integration.

'Separate but equal'

"There's a resurrection almost of 'separate but equal' in the plaintiffs' case," says R. Gerald Turner, the white chancellor of the University of Mississippi.

"People seem to think we're fighting for segregated schools, but that's not what the fight is about," says Beatrice Branch, president of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Black people didn't set this system up. The state set it up. This case is about equal funding, not closing or merging colleges."

In 1975, 13 years after James Meredith enrolled under armed guard as the first black student at the University of Mississippi -- known everywhere as Ole Miss -- 22 black plaintiffs sued the state, asserting that the state's higher education system was still unlawfully segregated. The federal government joined the case on the plaintiffs' side.

The state did make some efforts to increase spending at the state's black colleges and foster integration at the white ones. But the plaintiffs persisted, and the case went to trial in 1987. A federal judge ruled in favor of the state, saying it had met its legal burden to desegregate.

In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. The justices sent the case back to the trial court, saying that

the state's colleges maintained vestiges of the legally segregated past.

Many blacks hailed the decision, predicting that historically black campuses would finally receive the extra money and attention they need.

In Mississippi, the state responded to the Supreme Court decision by announcing that it wanted to close Mississippi Valley and send its students to predominantly white Delta State University, 35 miles away. There would also be some extra money for the two remaining historically black colleges, the state said, but the white institutions would lose nothing.

Late last year, the black plaintiffs and the federal government responded with their own plan, which shocked white Mississippi.

The proposal would take the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which is in the state capital of Jackson, 150 miles south of the Ole Miss main campus, and transfer it to predominantly black Jackson State University, three miles across town.

In Maryland, it would be akin to giving the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore to Morgan State University.

The plan would hand other popular programs to Jackson State, shifting undergraduate engineering from Ole Miss and architecture from Mississippi State.

There was even a suggestion that the state should pull Ole Miss and Mississippi State and their revered football teams out of the prestigious Southeastern Conference as a way of severing ties with the conference's segregated past.

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