The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to decide how far once-segregated state-university systems must go to racially integrate campuses that enroll students on a race-neutral basis.
The Justices accepted and consolidated two Mississippi suits that some civil-rights advocates suggest could have an impact on higher education comparable to the effect on schools of the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
Likely to be heard next fall, the suits are United States v. Mabus and Ayers v. Mabus, formerly Ayers v. Allain (Case No. 90-1205-6588).
Both the Justice Department and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had asked the High Court to take the case.
“The issues it addresses are as critically important as the issues that Brown addressed,” said Dan Fleshler, a spokesman for the legal fund.
“We’re very encouraged that the Court took this, because the [lower-court] decision was quite unfortunate,” he said. He added that the case comes “at a time when blacks are severely underrepresented in public colleges throughout the country, particularly in the South, and when the majority of black colleges are severely hampered by lack of resources.”
The case arises from Mississippi’s 118-year segregation of state-university students by race, a practice that continued until the court-ordered admission of a black student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Over the next 13 years, formerly whites-only and blacks-only institutions admitted students and hired faculty members of the other race.
But a group of black citizens and the U.S. government both sued the state in the mid-1970’s, alleging that the effects of Mississippi’s segregated university system were still being maintained.
A federal district court in 1987 ruled that the state had satisfied its obligations by dismantling the old dual-race system.
In 1990, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declared that “the State of Mississippi satisfies its constitutional obligation by discontinuing prior discriminatory practices and adopting and implementing good-faith, race-neutral policies and procedures.”
In requesting Supreme Court action, Solicitor General Kenneth W. Starr argued that “actions of Mississippi taken after abolition of its de jure dual system, in particular, continuation of a racially biased admissions process and perpetuation of the dual system through program duplication at the historically black and historically white schools ... impermissibly fettered [student] choice.”
Mr. Starr also asserted that the Fifth Circuit’s ruling conflicted with other appeals-court rulings, in Tennessee cases, on merging traditionally white and traditionally black colleges and upholding preferences for blacks in graduate admissions. The latter ruling, in Geier v. Alexander, came in 1986 during Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander’s tenure as Governor of Tennessee.
Mississippi argued in court papers that differences among its eight state institutions were not based on race. The state has three “comprehensive” universities; one “urban” university; and four “regional’’ universities, including two predominantly white schools.
The state cited “no present correlation by race among the non-comprehensive universities in funding or ... areas in which funds have historically been expended.”
Also last week, the High Court declined to review:
Treshman v. Texas (No. 90-1374). An activist was found guilty of trespass after distributing anti-abortion literature at a public high school even though school officials had asked him to leave. He challenged the conviction as a violation of his right to free speech. A state appellate court upheld the conviction.
Coriz v. Martinez (No. 90-1304). A high-school student claimed that another student broke his arm and that a gym teacher allowed the incident to occur. A federal district court granted the teacher immunity. The appeals court upheld the judgment.
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 1991 edition of Education Week as Court To Rule on Segregation in State-University Systems