Protesters gather at Smith Park in downtown Jackson in support of reopening the Ayers case.

Veteran activists championing HBCU funding are ready to pass the torch

Last Saturday morning, Alvin Chambliss waited on an empty sidewalk in front of the Masonic Lodge on J.R. Lynch Street. It was quarter past nine, and the march he had spent a month organizing was supposed to have started fifteen minutes ago. But aside from Chambliss and his co-organizer, former Mississippi state lawmaker Kathy Sykes, only one person had shown up. Chambliss was starting to get impatient.

“Fired up, ready to go,” he said into a megaphone to no one in particular.

Chambliss, a civil rights attorney, is best known for his role litigating Ayers v. Fordice, the landmark class-action lawsuit that alleged Mississippi had violated the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to adequately fund its three public Historically Black colleges and universities. Chambliss helped bring the case in 1975 on behalf of the father of a student at Jackson State University. Chambliss fought the case for nearly 30 years — to his professional and financial detriment — until 2002, when it was settled, over his objections, to the tune of $503 million.

Every year since, the Legislature and the Institutions of Higher Learning have doled out a portion of that money to JSU, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University. But that is set to end next year. And Chambliss is worried his worst fears about the settlement are being realized: For instance, the IHL board was supposed to raise $35 million for a private endowment for the HBCUs by 2009 as part of the settlement. As of this year, the board has raised just $1 million.

At 77 years old, Chambliss wants to carry on fighting, but he knows his time is running out. So he organized the march from JSU to Smith Park on Saturday as a clarion call to students at Mississippi’s HBCUs so that they could carry on his legacy.

“This is the beginning of the end for me in terms of passing the torch to the young people,” he told Mississippi Today.

But by 9:30 a.m., just one student had shown up: Jordan Jefferson, a 23-year-old JSU graduate. Now a master’s student of public policy at Harvard, Jefferson said it was important for him to march to hold legislators accountable for equal funding. He’s not the only student who feels that way, but as for why his fellow graduates hadn’t shown up, Jefferson said he thinks there is a lack of communication between Chambliss’s generation and his own.

“Both sides are at fault,” he said. “Baby-boomers are hyper-aggressive, and Gen Zers are too lackadaisical. There needs to be a middle-ground so the wave can be passed.”

A couple minutes later, Sykes and Jefferson looked around for Chambliss. He had started walking without warning and was already a few blocks away.

The march to Smith Park took forty-five minutes. A dozen people, most of whom were scheduled to speak, greeted Chambliss and Jefferson with ice-cold water.

Chambliss’s anxiety over the generational gap is about more than tactics or sensibilities. In order to relitigate the Ayers case, Chambliss and Sykes need current students at Mississippi’s HBCUs to serve as plaintiffs in order to have standing to sue.

“This has to be a student-driven movement if it wants sustainability,” Chambliss said.

And Chambliss is not alone in his fear that the next generation does not value HBCUs like he did. The first speaker, Reverend Rims Barber, a white man who had come to Mississippi during Freedom Summer, asked God to give the next generation the courage to continue the struggle. Clenora Hudson-Weems, a scholar who coined the term “Africana womanism,” talked about the importance of keeping HCBUs’ original names so their legacy is not lost. Jefferson, the Harvard student, talked about the need to diversify tactics.

“What we’re doing is not working,” Jefferson said.

Bill Chandler, from the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, spoke about how JSU and Alcorn State admitted undocumented students when no other universities in Mississippi would. “This is an important struggle not only for Black students but Latinos and other immigrants who have been denied entry to the other universities,” he said. “As they say — si se puede.”

Chambliss’s daughter, Alvenia, was one of the last people to speak. She talked about experiencing the systemic inequities that her dad spent decades fighting. After graduating from Florida A&M in 2002, the same year the Ayers case was settled, Alvenia wanted to study medicine. But despite having high grades, none of the medical schools she applied to in the U.S. would admit her. She ended up going to school in the Caribbean.

Her father’s struggle, she said, helped her realize that not getting into medical school in the U.S. was not her personal failure, but a systemic one. She knows the value of her dad’s wisdom, as well as the origin of his anxiety.

“All I see is these intellectual, beautiful people who have passed down so many riches, and they’re dying off without the ability to tell us how important this very moment is,” she had said.

She just wishes they’d have a little more faith in her generation.

“They’re so afraid to let the torch go,” she said.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

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