JACKSON – We now learn that intervention of President Nixon in a secret deal with Sen. James O. Eastland in the early 1970s prevented the U.S. Justice Department from handing the premier professional schools at the state’s historic white universities to the historic black institutions.
The story comes out in an as-told-to biography of Hattiesburg businessman Bobby Chain, a onetime member of the State College Board. Chain tells that he was a go-between in the higher learning deal, but was sworn to secrecy until both Nixon and Eastland had passed away.
Chain and Dr. Robert Harrison of Yazoo City, the first black member appointed (by Gov. Bill Waller) to the prestigious Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning – commonly known as the state College Board – made frequent trips to Washington to confer with Eastland at a time the board was under intense pressure from Justice officials to racially integrate the state institutions.
(It must be pointed out that these secret negotiations took place three years before black farmer Jake Ayers and others filed a desegregation lawsuit in federal court, a massive case that later went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and took 29 years for Mississippi to work out a multi-million dollar settlement.)
When Chain was appointed to the College Board by Waller in 1972, he learned that the board had quietly for several years had been carrying out a quota plan to bring more white students to the black institutions – Jackson State, Alcorn State, and Mississippi Valley – as well blacks to the four historically white schools, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and Mississippi State College for Women.
To meet their “other race” quotas, Chain says the board discovered that both Jackson State and MSCW were giving scholarships to foreign students. Several hundred Iranians had been recruited by Jackson State, and the president of MSCW had gone to China to recruit Chinese students, also on scholarship. When the discovery was made, Chain said, the foreign students were deported.
According to Chain, if the Justice Department had forced the board to implement its plan in 1972, the Jackson-based University Medical School would have been transferred from the jurisdiction of Ole Miss to Jackson State. So would the Oxford-based Ole Miss Law School. Engineering would have gone from Mississippi State to Alcorn and the MSU School of Architecture would have gone to Valley.
Mike Shaheen, a former Mississippian and native of Boston, who was then a civil rights adviser to President Nixon, proved to be the point man in dealing with the Justice Department after he was called in by Sen. Eastland. Shaheen, whose father had opened a medical practice in the tiny town of Como when Mike was a child, for 22 years served as internal affairs investigator in the Justice Department. He was ideally connected to get the agency off Mississippi’s back, Eastland had told Chain and Harrison after meeting privately with Nixon at the White House. (Ironically, all this was taking place while the Watergate scandal was hitting front pages.)
Bob Pittman, a former Jackson newsman, did the writing of Chain’s biography. Pittman for years served as president of the Mississippi Economic Council, and is now specializing in writing biographies and articles on politics and religion.
Chain, now 82, as a self-made highly successful Mississippi businessman, is worthy of mention for more than just his role 38 years ago in the racial integration of state institutions of higher education. In his childhood and youth he felt some of the hardships dealt to those of us who lived through the Great Depression. He had some of the boot-strap experiences that I had – trying my hand at picking cotton for a little spending money, and selling newspapers to make $10 or $12 a week. In 1942 when servicemen poured into Camp Shelby, he got up early each morning to sell the New Orleans Times-Picayune (my old paper) at the officers’ mess, making 2 cents on every nickel newspaper.
Fortunately for him, his entrepreneurial spirit in later years created far more profitable business ventures than peddling papers.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at email@example.com.