Ayers case forces us to learn from Mississippi’s past

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 20, 2000

Ayers case forces us to learn from Mississippi’s past

How do you convince young white students to attend an historically black university? It’s a question that has stumped officials at Alcorn State University for years, and it’s a question whose complex answer must be found quickly for Alcorn — and southwest Mississippi — to grow.

What was once simply a strange feeling white people had when they visited the school’s Lorman campus has become a state issue — few whites students attend the school.

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Last month the question was pushed to the forefront when U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers froze $3.6 million intended for Alcorn and Mississippi Valley State as &uot;seed&uot; money to help it overcome racial injustices in the past.

The judge put a freeze on the funds in order to review the school’s plans to achieve a more diverse enrollment and improve the academics at the school.

The $3.6 million is the latest of about $61 million given to Mississippi’s historically black colleges and universities as part of the landmark Ayers case.

The Ayers case was filed in 1975 by the late Jack Ayers Sr. to prove that black universities in the state were systematically treated unfairly. In 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the unfair treatment must end.

The Ayers case is a watershed moment for Mississippi. It shakes the state’s higher education foundation. It forces Mississippians to look at our past for what it was. As difficult as that was, it was easy compared to what’s next: How to fix it.

Today, a quarter of a century after the beginning of Ayers, defendants in the case and the state continue closed-door settlement discussions in the matter. And Alcorn and other black universities are left trying to rid the school of stereotypes.

Fact: Alcorn is an historically black college, that’s it’s history. By no means should this mean that whites shouldn’t attend the school.

Just as James Meredith did decades ago at Ole Miss, Alcorn needs to find a few courageous white students to break down the stereotypes associated with the school so that students of all colors can sit together in a classroom and learn — which is what education should be about.

And by learning in a more diverse environment each of those students will become more enriched through learning about how others — different but not less human — than themselves live.

The potential for wonderful things to come out of the Ayers case is real. The question is: Can we see the potential and seize it or will we continue doing things the way we always have?

The decision is ours alone.