In 1975 Jake Ayers Sr., a civil rights veteran from Glen Allan and parent of a student at historically black Jackson State University, filed suit in federal district court claiming that the State of Mississippi had not provided adequate resources to its historically black institutions of higher education. The Ayers suit, based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, eventually became a class-action lawsuit with the United States and Bennie Thompson, later a member of the US Congress, intervening as plaintiffs. The case originally was known as Ayers v. Waller since Bill Waller was Mississippi governor when it was filed. It was renamed Ayers v. Fordice in 1991 and later Ayers v. Musgrove. Attorney Ike Madison first represented the plaintiffs but later turned the case over to Alvin Chambliss.
Mississippi has three publicly funded historically black colleges and universities, Jackson State University, Alcorn State University, and Mississippi Valley State University. Before the desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962, black Mississippians who sought public in-state education could attend only the black schools. The state legislature unequally appropriated tax dollars so that these schools were severely underfunded, resulting in gross inequities in the available educational opportunities. Ayers’s lawsuit sought to correct these inequities.
The federal district court ruled in 1987 that by adopting race-neutral policies in admissions and other areas, Mississippi had satisfied its duty to correct the de jure segregated state university system. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision in 1990. In 1992, however, the US Supreme Court found that both the district and appellate courts had applied an incorrect legal standard. The Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI required Mississippi to abolish any policy or practice that could be traced to de jure segregation, that continued to promote segregation, and that could be eliminated. Returning the case to district court, the Supreme Court made clear that the issue was eliminating effects of prior state-enforced segregation, not mandating equality among the state’s public institutions.
In 1995, using the Supreme Court’s standard, the district court found vestiges of segregation in Mississippi’s higher education system. In 2002, nearly three decades after the lawsuit’s inception, the state and a majority of plaintiffs reached an agreement to award the three historically black institutions $503 million over seventeen years. The settlement included funds for new programs, new facilities, and large endowments if each of the schools achieved a 10 percent nonblack student enrollment for three consecutive years. Some plaintiffs, including Lillie Ayers, the widow of Jake Ayers, who had died in 1986, appealed the settlement because they felt that the financial enhancements were not enough to compete with the state’s white institutions and that the condition of increased nonblack enrollment would be difficult to meet and was not relevant to the original intent of the suit. In 2004, however, the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the settlement.
- Cynthia Jackson and Eleanor F. Nunn, Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Reference Handbook (2001)
- Avery Sheldon, Academic Questions (September 2009)