Mississippi's Landmark HBCU Lawsuit Shows the Reach of Inequity Beyond Borders and Across Generations

Five years from now, the State of Mississippi will make its final payout to its three public historically black universities as mandated by a Supreme Court desegregation decision ordered in 1992 and implemented by the state a decade later.

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But issues persist for Alcorn State University, Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University, all which have worked hard to qualify for every cent of funding attached to increasing white student enrollment, maintaining standards for admission and achievement, and providing an educational safety valve for the state’s abysmal record on primary and secondary education for its students.
Unlike the schools, Mississippi hasn’t invested the same energy in keeping its court-mandated promise; a $35 million endowment which was supposed to be secured with funds raised by the IHL board is short about $34 million. And money which was supposed to add to the HBCUs’ usual appropriations has now become a resource to replace funding lost through budget cuts.

“We are continuously looking at initiatives to bring in other race students, but the challenge is where we are located in the Mississippi Delta,” said La Shon Brooks, (Mississippi Valley State University’s) chief of staff and legislative liaison.
“It’s getting to a point where our employees will be affected if we don’t have something to take the place of the funds that’ll go away,” added Brooks.

Mississippi will have paid more than $500 million over 30 years to amend for generations of racist and segregative policies which stunted the expansion of these three HBCUs. In some ways the judicial remedy has worked – Jackson State is one of just five historically black institutions classified as a Carnegie “higher research activity” institution. And along with Alcorn, JSU has had several years with increased enrollment and has established competitive programs in diverse fields.
But gaps in the Ayers settlement, which HBCU advocates challenged even 20 years ago, mean more than just missing funds needed to spur marketing, recruitment and talent acquisition in faculty and staff. It also means that the foundational case for current and future litigation involving HBCUs will have this precedent upon which to base future settlements.
In Maryland, a federal judge is poised to rule on how the state used program duplication to create more harmful effects for its four black colleges than Mississippi ever did with disparate funding. The Ayers case was a critical element in the plaintiffs’ case, which made the argument that its judgment didn’t go far enough in reversing harmful effects of separate but equal systems of higher education for black and white students.

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Maryland is betting on the case going to higher courts, and possibly the Supreme Court, where they hope to draw the empathy of a largely conservative bench. But even with political leanings on their side, case law and popular culture project a bitter loss for the Free State – but they will have a healthy blueprint for how to avoid harsh penalties thanks to Mississippi’s appropriation shell games.
The money will eventually end in Mississippi, and its three HBCUs will have a recent history of budget cuts that if sustained would be catastrophic without the salve of the Ayers lawsuit funding and underdevelopment endowments. How their infrastructure and operations survive without it remains a critical question; but just as important is the notion of how Maryland and other states contemplating inequity lawsuits will deal with the Mississippi model of marginalizing HBCUs, even with a $500 million price tag attached?