In the History Corner… Let’s thank the original private plaintiffs as the Ayers’ case come to a close

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In January 1975, 21 Black plaintiffs filed suit in federal court alleging that the state of Mississippi was racially discriminatory in the operation of its system of higher education – Alcorn State, Delta State, Jackson State, Mississippi State, Mississippi University for Women, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Southern Mississippi. From that point through 2001 the two sides battled in court. 

(The case also included Coahoma Community College, Hinds Community College, Mississippi Delta Community College, and Utica Community College. Unlike the universities, however, the four community colleges’ issues were settled outside the universities’ settlement agreement. This was done primarily through actions of the state legislature and the several boards of trustees.)

Now, nearly 48 years and something less than $466.5 million later, for all intents and purposes, the case has ended. In light of that, it is already far beyond time to recognize and thank the 21 named plaintiffs in the suit. They deserve the thanks since they stood in for all of us who were potential beneficiaries, but without having our names on the line. 

A great deal has been written over the years about the case and its original lead attorneys – Isaiah Madison and Alvin Chambliss – for the private plaintiffs. That is as it should be, given the fact that they organized the arguments and served as the legal mouthpiece in the courts over those years of litigation.

Less has been written about the Black Mississippians’ Council on Higher Education, which played a major role in getting the case organized and off the ground. That group, nevertheless, helped raise funds to carry on the litigation. It also helped identify plaintiffs and provided much of the data utilized by the lawyers.

Madison and Chambliss, along with the Black Mississippians’ Council on Higher Education, were in the forefront from 1975 – 2001. They are to be forever thanked and remembered for their work on the case. Whatever was achieved is due to their efforts. The apparent shortcomings with the settlement were the results of others at a later date, primarily the powerful actions and pressures of individuals acting in the name of the state.

The primary focus in this article is on the private plaintiffs because so little has been written about them. Additionally, they were the individuals who were directly identified with the suit and thus were open to various forms of retaliation from elements of the white community who were opposed to such an action as changing how the public institutions were being operated.

The courageous 21 named plaintiffs came from all parts of the state and from each of the historically Black colleges. They included taxpayers, parents, students, and potential students. Some were civil rights activists and some were just hardworking citizens. Understanding the potent and all too apparent nature of racism in 1974 can help one to appreciate the courage of these plaintiffs in stepping forward to serve as plaintiffs. They were heroic in what they did for the Black community at that time. 

• Most noted was JAKE AYERS SR. He was the father of a child who was attending a public school in the state and was looking forward to attending one of the historically Black universities. Ayers was a landowner and civil rights advocate who lived in Glen Allen. Unfortunately, he died before most of the court action took place.

• Second, there was JAKE AYERS JR. This son was a high school student in Washington County at the time of the filing of the case. He lived to see the case settled. Like his mother, who participated in the court hearings, he was disappointed and dissatisfied with the final outcome of the case.

• A third plaintiff was LOUIS ARMSTRONG, an adult male student who was a military veteran and attending Jackson State University. He resided in Jackson.

• Another adult male was DARRYL C. THOMAS who was a student at Jackson State University. He, too, resided in Jackson.

GEORGE BELL was an adult male who lived in Greenville. He was a taxpayer and citizen who had graduated from Mississippi Valley State University.

ALBERT JOE WILLIAMS was likewise an adult male citizen and taxpayer who lived in Greenville. He, too, was an alumnus of Mississippi Valley State University.

• Then there was LEOLA BLACKMON who was an adult female residing in Carrollton. She was a citizen and taxpayer whose children attended public schools and public institutions of higher learning in the state.

LILLIE BLACKMON was the daughter of Leola Blackmon. She was a student at Alcorn State University and resided in Carrollton.

DAVE COLLINS was an adult male who resided in Yazoo City. He was a student attending Jackson State University.

PAMELA GIPSON was an adult citizen and taxpayer who lived in Jackson.

VIRGINIA HILL was an adult female citizen who was an alumnus of Jackson State University. She was a Jackson resident.

JAMES HOLLOWAY was an adult male citizen who was attending Alcorn State University. He was a resident of Hazlehurst.

HATTIE JAMES was an adult female citizen and taxpayer. She was the mother of students attending the public schools and public institutions of higher learning in the state. She lived in Greenville.

MARGARET JAMES was the daughter of Hattie James. She, too, lived in Greenville. She was a student attending Mississippi Valley State University.

B. LEON JOHNSON was an adult male citizen and taxpayer. He lived in West Point.

SHIRLEY A. PORTER was an adult female citizen and a student at Alcorn State University. She lived in Rosedale.

JOHNNY SIMS was an adult citizen and alumnus of Alcorn State University. He resided in West Point.

KENNETH SPEARMAN was an adult male citizen and was attending Alcorn State University. He resided in Lorman.

BENNIE THOMPSON was an adult male citizen and taxpayer. He was an alumnus of Jackson State University and lived in Bolton.

RANDOLPH WALKER was an adult male citizen and taxpayer. He was an alumnus of Alcorn State University and resided in West Point.

THELMA H. WALKER was an adult female citizen who was also an alumnus of Alcorn State University and resided in West Point.

It was important that each plaintiff was a citizen, a taxpayer, a public school student, or a student at a public institution of higher learning in order to have standing as a member of the class on whose behalf the suit was filed. Clearly, all 21 of the named plaintiffs qualified under one or more of the categories. 

Of the 21, Louis Armstrong and Bennie Thompson remained the most active plaintiffs over the years. They both had become public officials before the case was settled. After the death of Jake Ayers, his widow, Mrs. Lillie Ayers, became the face of the case, appearing in every court hearing until the settlement agreement was approved.

The Black Mississippians’ Council on Higher Education in whose deliberations they participated also functioned from 1974 until 1990. After it ceased to meet and function on a regular basis, the work that it had been performing was taken up by a group called the Mississippi Coalition on Black Higher Education, which continued on as an active plaintiff, including recruiting new active plaintiffs and facilitating strategy meetings, through the final settlement in 2001.

While all Black residents of the state of Mississippi were included as the class on whose behalf the suit was filed, we owe a special debt of gratitude to the 21 plaintiffs named above because they were willing to have their names out-front in what was a monumental case. Not having done so previously, on behalf of others of like mind, the writer publicly says here and now, THANK YOU to those unsung heroes. May generations past, present, and future always bless them and seek to imitate their actions for the sake of others.

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In the History Corner… Let’s thank the original private plaintiffs as the Ayers’ case come to a close

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
December 27, 2022