Last modified: Thursday, September 30, 2004
Alvin Chambliss, one of the original civil rights lawyers, joins IU faculty
Awaits U.S. Supreme Court ruling in case he has tried for nearly 30 years
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Growing up poor as one of 12 children in Columbia, Miss., Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. sometimes went hungry but never lost his appetite for knowledge.
"I can say that some of the times during my high school years I was hungry," recalled Chambliss, today a distinguished visiting professor at Indiana University Bloomington. "We didn't starve, but we were hungry. It was a natural to go farther, because it was a sacrifice just to get out of high school."
With the support of his family, particularly his grandmother, he earned degrees from two historically black colleges -- Jackson State University and Howard University Law School -- and the University of California at Berkeley.
Best known as "the last original civil rights attorney in America," Chambliss is awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on a certiorari filing on the case he's been connected with for nearly 30 years, Ayers v. Barbour, and the legal battle over support for Mississippi's historically black colleges.
At IU Bloomington, Chambliss will teach and work with faculty in IU's nationally recognized School of Education and in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. He also wants to share with another generation of young people his experiences with several historic figures in the civil rights movement.
His mentors include Lawrence Guyot, who epitomized black America's struggle for the right to vote when he organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to protest the state's all-white elections in 1964. Then there were attorneys Howard Moore, who represented Julian Bond and Muhammad Ali, and Thurgood Marshall, who subsequently was named to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While still a student at Howard University Law School, Chambliss assisted famed professor Herbert O. Reid Jr. on the trial and acquittal of Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who had been wrongly charged with tax evasion.
C.J. Duckworth, the founder of the Mississippi Teachers Association, was his high school principal and his first mentor besides his grandmother, Elizabeth Chambliss.
"C.J. Duckworth instilled in all of us that we had to go to college and beyond. He said for the generation coming up that was not enough," Chambliss recalled. "What I am trying to preach now was preached to me at the knee of my grandmother and all of the mentors in my village. Education is the key to survival for blacks and minorities."
"Professor Chambliss has a rich background in civil rights, poverty law and civil liberties, having argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and various federal circuit courts of appeals and U.S. district courts," said Frank Motley, IU associate vice chancellor for academic support. "Alvin is uniquely situated and qualified to share with IU students the nuts and bolts issues in education as well as social welfare and civil rights."
Chambliss has been a faculty member at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. His other clients have included the family of James Byrd Sr., who was the victim of a cruel, hate-crime-related murder in Jasper, Texas. He also was involved in the Texas higher education desegregation cases that sought to bring funding equity to Prairie View and Texas Southern universities. His street law program won acclaim from the Texas Supreme Court, and its mock trials involved more than 40 schools in Houston.
Black Issues in Higher Education recently named him as one of its "Most Significant Blacks in the Last 100 Years."
His 30-year mission
The Ayers case again before the U.S. Supreme Court originated in 1975, when the late Jake Ayers Sr. sued the state of Mississippi, accusing it of neglecting its black universities. Plaintiffs successfully demanded that more money be put into the historically black institutions to end segregation and discrimination.
"We had seen how desegregation among many good-intended people had unintentional consequences that were hurting black people," he said. "The desegregation of elementary and secondary education resulted in the firing of black principals, the firing of black teachers, the closing of schools and the total obliteration of many of the black communities all across the South. We were filing a lawsuit not to necessarily desegregate in the sense that we would close schools. We filed the lawsuit for equalization of allocation of resouces, such that our schools would be able to attract other race students."
In its 1992 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi's predominantly black institutions were inferior because they were under-funded and it called for an end to the dual system in that state, but plaintiffs disputed the steps mandated to do so. While remedies were ordered, a district court settlement did not come until February 2002, after the Mississippi Legislature pledged to fulfill its requirements.
Chambliss and other opponents, who included Ayers' widow, believe the settlement does not address key Title VI deficiencies such as governance mission and the establishment of unique graduate and professional programs that the historically black colleges need to remain relevant. They also said that nearly half of the settlement's proceeds go to support white scholarships at black schools. He believes that it does not craft an effective remedy for public black colleges that will propel them into being research universities, which would attract all students.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans denied their appeal in January, after a district court upheld the $503 million settlement earlier. In May, Chambliss filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a ruling in mid-October.
"We do not believe that the burden of desegregation should be put on the backs of black people and poor people -- the victims," he said. "We were able to get this written into the regulations. Unfortunately, we are here today before the Supreme Court with the federal court system not enforcing Title VI. If we really enforced Title VI, every black college in America would be substantially better."
Congressman William J. Jefferson (D-La.), former lead counsel in a similar case in Louisiana, is reported to have said, "He took over the case without any guarantees. He maneuvered it with grace, passion and the competitiveness of Magic Johnson. Alvin believed the Ayers case was the program's number one priority and never allowed anyone to forget it."
Chambliss recognizes that he has his detractors, including those in the African American community. "The conventional wisdom is that we've gone as far as we can go and we need to just cut bait and get whatever we can," he said. He also appreciates that his chances of the high court taking his case are slim. The court receives about 9,000 requests to be heard each year and only grants about 125 of them.
"This is the longest-running civil rights case in the country, and if certiorari is granted, it's going to be even longer," he quipped.
As Chambliss gets more settled on the Bloomington campus, he plans to include the case in his research about higher education desegregation policies. He is organizing a conference to be held later this year about the impact of Brown v. Board of Education, Ayers v. Fordice, Adams v. Richardson and Title VI and their unfulfilled promises. He will teach two courses next semester.
He also wants to study IU's history of providing advanced degree opportunities to Southern blacks between the 1930s and the 1970s, when those opportunities weren't readily available to them in their home states.
"Even though people say Bloomington wasn't the most liberal (place), you had Hoosiers who were dedicated to being open," he said. "I'm not sure if this school has been given the recognition that it deserves."