By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – In 1975, a college kid named Bennie C. Thompson of Bolton joined Jake Ayers and a few others in a lawsuit against Mississippi. Soon, the U.S. Justice Department joined with them.
Universities had desegregated, the suit noted, but Jackson State, Alcorn State and Valley – the universities the state had created for black students – were still carrying their historic second-class status. Somehow, the suit said, the Legislature needed to put them on par with the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State, Mississippi University for Women, the University of Mississippi and Delta State – the historically white schools.
Twenty-seven years later, in 2002, the Ayers litigation ended, with Thompson, by then U.S. Rep. Bennie C. Thompson, agreeing to the settlement. It’s now 37 years later. Thompson says historically black colleges are still on the ropes, still suffering injustices.
As reported in The Vicksburg Post, Thompson, speaking to about 600 members of the Alcorn National Alumni Association, referenced State and Ole Miss and said they “are stealing our top students and our top athletes.” He continued: “These are top students, honor students – and they are going to the competition.”
That, in a nutshell, is how Thompson sees the world.
A few days after Thompson’s speech in Vicksburg, Myrlie Evers-Williams – a child of educators who grew up in that town – spoke to a reunion in Oxford of African-Americans who had attended Ole Miss during the past 50 years.
Evers-Williams held her husband, Medgar, as he bled to death after being shot in the carport of their Jackson home in 1963. By the time he was murdered, Medgar Evers had already faced insult and injustice. Many don’t know it, but he had applied for and was refused admission to law school at Ole Miss in 1954. Six years later – and just months before he was assassinated – Medgar Evers assisted James Meredith, who did break the color barrier in Mississippi’s higher education system.
Her family history illustrates that if anyone has reason to harbor resentment toward this state, its schools and its people, it is Myrlie Evers-Williams, who, by the way, met Medgar when both were students at Alcorn.
Yet she didn’t speak an accusatory or hostile word while talking to those attending the reunion in Oxford. Instead, she talked at length about the real struggle, the real sacrifices of the Civil Rights era and the different way youths now view the painful years when America dismantled its version of apartheid.
More than anything else, Evers-Williams, now 79, congratulated the historians, physicians, attorneys, business people and educators with Ole Miss degrees as she made her point: The thing that separates people the most is not their color, but the choices they make. To be indifferent, or to fail to do good, is to let people with hate in their hearts carry the day. She said the bridges that need to be built are not only across lines of race, but also of wealth and age.
There was always a chance, starting the day Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss, that the historically black universities would no longer be needed or relevant. After all, were it not for segregation, they wouldn’t have been created in the first place. But there are solid, well-founded arguments for the continued existence and the success of schools where minorities compose all or almost all of the student body.
That seemed to be the basis for Ayers’ suit – that Jackson State, Alcorn and Valley deserved to exist.
But try as they might, the trial judge, Neal Biggers, and the U.S. Supreme Court could not come to the conclusion that an “enclave” for minority students could be justified under the U.S. Constitution.
Thompson, in Vicksburg, was addressing a real and growing tension. Minority students, free to attend without hassle the schools they find offer them the best opportunities, are doing just that – in state and out of state, public and private. And that confounds leaders of the historically black schools who see, as Thompson described, their institutions losing ground.
The end of this story has yet to be written. Thompson wants alumni to give money, voice support, recruit students. Evers-Williams, an Alcornite herself, will aid that effort as soon-to-be scholar in residence at Alcorn.
Here’s hoping, however, that in the final analysis it is the thinking of Evers-Williams that carries the day. This state is far from wealthy. We don’t need to talk in terms of universities as “stealing” from each other. We need to work to see the needs of each student are met as effectively and affordably as possible.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.