During each of the last three legislative sessions, there have been discussions regarding the building of a stadium for Jackson State University. Jackson State demolished Alumni Field, where it had played its home football games and replaced it with the John A. Peoples Science Building after the state, in 1967, permitted it and the other historically Black universities to utilize Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.
For years after that, there was no discussion about a JSU stadium because JSU, by playing in Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, was generating the necessary revenue to retire the debt incurred when it was expanded to accommodate games played by Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Southern Miss, whenever they played in Jackson. JSU home game revenue was the only steady, reliable source of income for the stadium. Furthermore, JSU was setting attendance records as it played the likes of Grambling, Alcorn, Southern, and Tennessee State in the stadium. In that sense, JSU played a major role in “paying” for the expanded stadium.
As the case of Ayers vs. Waller was filed in 1975, the plaintiffs – Black residents of the state – sought to have the stadium placed under the auspices of Jackson State University. Their justification included the fact that (1) JSU had no football stadium or field, as did the other public universities with football teams; (2) Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium was located in Jackson as was JSU; and (3) such a move would help eliminate the remaining vestiges of the state’s segregated system of higher education.
The state, of course, not only balked, but even put pressure on the sitting JSU president at the time, Dr. James Lyons, to indicate that it would not be a good move because the university did not have the necessary budget to renovate and maintain the stadium. Fortunately, the Mississippi Coalition of Black Higher Education had publicly suggested, and the attorneys for the private plaintiffs soon recommended in their September 25, 2000 proposal, “that ownership of Mississippi Veterans Stadium in Jackson be transferred to Jackson State University along with the material and operational resources necessary for its repair and maintenance.”
Rather than accept such a proposal, the defendants, that is the state and college board, countered with the following statement, which was eventually enshrined in the final agreement. “Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium is to be designated as the home of the JSU Tigers. Membership on the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium Commission will be afforded to the president of JSU or his designee. The State Legislature is expected to enact the legislation necessary to effect these changes. The Stadium Commission shall provide appropriate signage.”
Based upon that provision in the settlement agreement, many people were led to believe that JSU owned the stadium. That was apparently just a “wooden nickel.” The matter has still not been clarified since there have been and still are on-going efforts to get JSU out of the Veterans Memorial Stadium. None of the state’s initiatives, however, have included an offer to “purchase” the stadium from JSU, which should be the case if the stadium is truly owned by JSU.
During Ronald Mason’s tenure as president, rumors began circulating about the state wanting to demolish the stadium in order to enable the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) to expand. It was rumored that money would be provided by the federal government for the expansion. The plan fell through, however, when the federal funds were not allocated.
The plan died but not the idea of removing JSU from the stadium. It has persisted with every subsequent administration.
During the Carolyn Meyers administration, there was a proposal to build JSU a domed stadium. This came from the administration, not the college board. The college board officials never warmed up to the idea, although it would have gotten JSU out of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. Apparently, the board wanted JSU out of the prominently placed stadium but not in a facility that was an improvement over the stadiums that were owned by Ole Miss or Mississippi State. The matter thus lingered on the back burner and died with Meyers’ departure.
Once the Thomas Hudson administration was in place, a bill was passed commissioning a study aimed at locating a place and beginning the process of building a stadium for Jackson State. By the time of the bill’s introduction, there was talk of having the stadium on the campus. That is apparently where matters now stand.
In all of these initiatives, the object has been to get JSU out of the stadium that was designed to accommodate Ole Miss and Mississippi State when they came to town. In all of the initiatives, there have been many JSU alumni and loyalists who verbalized opposition to the building of any stadium that seats less than the capacity of the current stadium that state authorities pretended to have given to JSU through the Ayers’ settlement. Many alumni, JSU supporters, and community activists currently still hold that position.
Despite that reality, misleading information and cherry-picked statements have been circulated to deceive and sway the public and to suggest otherwise. Many “wooden nickels” are being offered.
One example of this is that under “Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium” on Wikipedia’s posting, former Vice President Michael Thomas is quoted as saying, “The ultimate goal is that we have our own stadium close to campus just because we think that would be more beneficial to JSU.” There has been no survey to make that determination. It was merely a statement by one official at one moment in time. There are others who feel that the present location between State Street and West Street is fine and who are concerned about disrupting another Black community to build a stadium. Still others see no need to demolish what is there in order to create something that some people want regardless of the expense involved in the process. If, however, the statement made by Vice President Thomas coincides with what white state officials want, then they are happy to let one Black man appear to speak for all Black people.
Further in the same Wikipedia posting, former UMMC Chief Administrative Affairs Officer David Powe is quoted as saying, “We don’t have a football team, so we would have no use for the stadium. So we would develop a plan for the development for that property … There’s a lot involved here, and we don’t want to cloud the issue. We want to make sure everyone understands that we’re in full support of Jackson State.” That statement is quite contrasting when one considers the fact that it was UMMC that had gotten the ball rolling back during the Mason administration. The statement says nothing about the fact that UMMC could build around the stadium as has been done in other cities, such as in Nashville, Tennessee. If, however, the statement is merely designed to be vague or strategic, then members of the power structure do not mind it being prominently displayed as if UMMC is an innocent by-stander in the matter.
Black Mississippians would do well to remember that it usually pays to be suspicious of what white officials say and do in terms of public policy. It is with that thought in mind that the stadium plan being developed by JSU President Hudson may not be in the best interest of the Black community. It is likely that he is being pressured to deliver what the college board desires in the matter, while making it appear that it is his position.
If history is understood, one will note that the college board and other state officials have historically been more concerned about their interests than those of the Black community. For an example, it would have been in their interest to have Jackson State moved to rural Hinds County rather than remain on Lynch Street in 1970. It was in their interest to close Alcorn and fire its president rather than address the legitimate grievances of the students in 1957. It has been in their interest to suggest, on several occasions, that there are too many Black colleges in the state and that Mississippi Valley State University be merged with Delta State or simply closed. It would have been in their interest to have merged Alcorn, Jackson State, and MVSU into a Jacobs State University, as was verbalized by President Ronald Mason in the early 2000s. Finally, it would be in their interest to disrupt another Jackson neighborhood and sanction the building of a “cracker-box” stadium in the capitol city for JSU, which for years has led the nation in football attendance rather than allowing JSU to continue “owning” and occupying Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. Do not take these “wooden nickels.”
Worse will come to worse if Black people continue to remain mute in the face of white assurgency. It is the pattern of history, a pattern that can only be broken by a new generation or at least a new pattern of thinking and action.
If Jackson State has come to truly “own” Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, its supporters need to insist that if they are to move, they be paid a fair price for that facility; that any new stadium that is built be comparable to the current stadium; and that the building of any new stadium will not displace hundreds of Black residents and voters. Otherwise, JSU supporters should insist that the university be funded sufficiently to renovate and maintain the current stadium.
As the legislative session gets underway, these issues will be in the background, even if not publicly discussed. They deserve a fair and just resolution, but will receive such only if Black activists and progressives take the initiative. Black people need to be or become thoroughly conversant on the issues and make sure that they are heard. Black administrators need to be encouraged to courageously defend what is in the best interest of the whole community. They should be clearly and strongly supported as they do so. Black legislators need to have their supporters in place to witness and support their stand as women and men on these critical issues.
By all means, Black people need to stand up and speak up on this and similar issues now and wherever it counts. In the meantime, as our elders advised, “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” no matter who is offering them.