A lawsuit that proponents say would have ramifications for historically black colleges around the country has been snaking through Maryland's judicial system for more than a decade.
One of the plaintiffs behind the case discussed the importance of maintaining support for these institutions at a panel discussion Sunday during the NAACP's national convention in Baltimore.
"HBCUs are the economic power base of our race," said David J. Burton, of the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education. "To lose that, we lose our future. To build upon that, we build our future."
The coalition is still waiting on a decision from U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake in a drawn-out trial about how to remedy segregation in Maryland's higher education system. Blake ruled in 2013 that the state has a "shameful history" of segregation.
Attorneys for the coalition argue that Maryland allowed well-funded marquee academic programs at traditionally white universities to undermine duplicate ones at historically black schools. They say the state should now spend hundreds of millions of dollars to transfer academic programs away from traditionally white institutions while at the same time, developing niche programs at historically black universities. This solution, they say, will give historically black institutions distinct identities, which would attract a diverse student body.
During closing arguments for the trial in June, an attorney representing the Maryland Higher Education Commission called that proposal the "worst, most destructive thing that can be done."
Instead, Cy Smith argued the state should devote money to three of Maryland's historically black schools that would go toward marketing, multicultural centers and activities, and scholarships aimed at increasing diversity.
Chief Counsel Jon Greenbaum, of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, said Sunday he doesn't know a timeline for when Blake will hand down a ruling. And even when she does, he expects there may be an appeal.
Burton said he was happy to have the chance to discuss the lawsuit's history, progress and potential impact at the convention.
"This case is the most important education civil rights case in the United States, bar none," he said. "It has implications for how other states could approach and resolve similar issues."
Greenbaum, Burton and Pace McConkie, director of Morgan State University's civil rights center, answered questions about the case's history during an hourlong panel discussion.
In 2005, the Maryland Higher Education Commission approved a joint MBA program between Towson University and the University of Baltimore, which catalyzed the lawsuit. Morgan State officials said the new program would deter students, particularly white students, from taking advantage of its own MBA offering.
This came when white enrollment at historically black institutions was plummeting. In the 1970s, Maryland's four historically black institutions had white student populations of about 20 percent. By 2009, that fell to an average of around 5 percent.
Towson and University of Baltimore officials ended the joint program in 2015.
Former Morgan State President Earl Richardson said it's important to raise this debate at a national convention. Because the lawsuit has been going on since 2006, Richardson said, people may have put it out of their minds.
"It's absolutely critical going forward that the general society understands just how harmful this bit of segregation in higher education has been to the minority populations," he said. "Unless we understand it fully, we can't address it going forward."