Court: Get to the Unfinished Business

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The state of Mississippi is now spending almost precisely the same amount per student in its five overwhelmingly white and its three historically black institutions of higher education. But Mississippians were shocked last week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that much more has to be done to remedy decades of financial and other discriminations against the black colleges.

This has provoked talk of a financial "crisis" in which Mississippi might decide to close down Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State, the black institutions that are attended by some 12,000 youngsters.


But this Supreme Court ruling, a landmark affirmation of the need for affirmative actions to remedy old injustices, need not cause destructive turmoil in the higher education system of Mississippi or any other state. The solution lies in good faith acceptance of two fundamental points:

1. Desegregation does not, and must not, mean the destruction of everything black, or of merging it into whatever is white.


2. Admission to white institutions cannot be based primarily on test scores, with little weight given to high school grades. Such an admission system punishes black and poor white Mississippians who have gone to ill-equipped, poorly funded public schools from kindergarten through high school.

Tennessee offers dramatic evidence of what can be achieved where there is good faith and state leadership that is not driven by racism.

In May, I delivered the commencement address at Tennessee State University in Nashville, which I attended as a freshman in 1942-43 when it was totally black and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville was unbendingly white. What a pleasant shock to see that the graduating class and the audience of more than 10,000 were each about a third white, as is the student body.

The platform guests included the university's black president, James A. Hefner, Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., Representative Bob Clement, D-Tenn., son of a former governor, and Otis L. Floyd, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees all state-financed colleges and universities. I could not have imagined a collection of Tennessee leaders that spoke so powerfully of a joint, goodwill commitment to get racism out of higher education.

Beyond that, what I remembered as a bare-bones excuse for a campus in 1943 now stretched beyond my belief. A $120-million building program was almost complete. State officials obviously had decided that if they made this former all-black institution first-rate and put courses and disciplines there that are not available at all the formerly all-white schools, then whites would not hesitate to enroll at Tennessee State.

Whites have indeed flocked to Tennessee State's school of allied health sciences, its school of nursing, its school of agriculture, its college of engineering and its "centers of excellence" in information systems and basic skills.

Tennessee went through its years of ugly litigation. But over time, and under some judicial pressures, Tennessee officials discovered that where there's a will there's a way to do justice -- and to educate the children.

The Supreme Court has asked Mississippi to find the will.


Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.