Officials Defend Mississippi Desegregation Suit Settlement Offer
JACKSON, Miss. Higher education officials and the Mississippi attorney general defended the state’s counteroffer to a desegregation suit settlement posed by advocates for Black universities. The state College Board offered plaintiffs in the 25-year-old Ayers case about $400 million last month, an amount that was half of what was sought, says U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. “We believe it is … a very good offer,” says College Board President Carl Nicholson Jr. of Hattiesburg.Thompson disclosed the amount of the counteroffer, along with criticism for the proposal for falling so far short of the $800 million plaintiffs had sought. “I would not accept the College Board’s settlement offer as the gospel for settling Ayers because it leaves many critical issues unaddressed,” Thompson says. Bargaining talks were scheduled to resume at Black Issues’ press time. Asked about the $400 million figure as the amount in the board proposal, Attorney General Mike Moore says it was “in the ballpark,” but he would not be more specific about the plan. “I believe the College Board proposal is a very sound and substantial proposal,” Moore says. Nicholson says the counter- offer had to be balanced with the state’s fiscal constraints. Officials say the costs of a board plan would be spread out over 15 years. Both sides agree on one thing: A settlement isn’t near. “There is still a lot of work that all of us will have to do if a settlement is to come,” Thompson says. Moore agrees that there is still a long way to go. In January the state legislature will be asked to pay for an Ayers settlement. One of the differences in the case centers around the plaintiffs’ desire to create a law school at Jackson State University to help increase the number of African American lawyers in Mississippi. College Board members say a JSU law school would be expensive and they question its need in a state with a public law school at the University of Mississippi in Oxford and a private law school at Mississippi College in downtown Jackson. Before a settlement is crafted, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. has emphasized that Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State universities must do a better job of attracting White students as a part of a solution to the case. But plaintiffs say the issue Biggers is raising about White students was not the intent of the original lawsuit Jake Ayers Sr. filed in 1975. Ayers says he wanted to abolish funding inequities for the three historically Black universities that were left behind following decades of neglect. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Mississippi to eliminate segregation remnants at its eight universities. Since Ayers’ lawsuit, Moore says there have been increases in the number of Black students at the state’s five historically White universities.
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