ITTA BENA, MISS. — ITTA BENA, Miss. -- In the heart of the sun-baked delta, surrounded by cotton fields and catfish farms, Mississippi Valley State University is a homely remnant of a divided past.
Four decades after the end of legal segregation, the campus survives as one of the state's few black institutions. The enrollment is 99.6 percent black.
But starting next week in a federal courthouse in Oxford, 120 miles northeast of here, lawyers for the state will try to persuade a judge that in the name of integration, it's time to close the university.
The case, which was filed 19 years ago by black students and which has already gone once to the U.S. Supreme Court, revolves around a vexing question: What is to be done with the most enduring legacies of legal segregation -- historically black colleges and universities?
Whatever the outcome, the bitter dispute in Mississippi will resonate loudly in states such as Maryland that have tried with varying degrees of success to integrate their once-segregated college systems.
"I'm not advocating an all-black system or an all-white system," says Alvin O. Chambliss Jr., one of the plaintiffs' attorneys. "But I'm saying you have to keep the black colleges. Black students have to be able to go there and not deal with a lot of unnecessary racism. You have to believe we need all these students."
The black plaintiffs who are suing say that Mississippi's three predominantly black campuses deserve more money, as well as a fair share of the state's premier academic offerings, even if it means grabbing them from predominantly white campuses. Make the black campuses good enough, they say, and white students will eventually enroll, too.
"Desegregation doesn't have to be in one direction all the time," says William W. Sutton, president of Mississippi Valley State.
But state authorities say that it makes no sense to transfer successful academic programs between campuses in the name of integration. In any case, they say, few whites will ever feel comfortable enrolling at colleges that have been identified as "predominantly black" for generations.
And in an ironic twist, many whites now say that it is blacks who are resisting integration.
'Separate but equal'
"There's a resurrection almost of 'separate but equal' in the plaintiffs' case," says R. Gerald Turner, the white chancellor of the University of Mississippi.
"People seem to think we're fighting for segregated schools, but that's not what the fight is about," says Beatrice Branch, president of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Black people didn't set this system up. The state set it up. This case is about equal funding, not closing or merging colleges."
In 1975, 13 years after James Meredith enrolled under armed guard as the first black student at the University of Mississippi -- known everywhere as Ole Miss -- 22 black plaintiffs sued the state, asserting that the state's higher education system was still unlawfully segregated. The federal government joined the case on the plaintiffs' side.
The state did make some efforts to increase spending at the state's black colleges and foster integration at the white ones. But the plaintiffs persisted, and the case went to trial in 1987. A federal judge ruled in favor of the state, saying it had met its legal burden to desegregate.
In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. The justices sent the case back to the trial court, saying that
the state's colleges maintained vestiges of the legally segregated past.
Many blacks hailed the decision, predicting that historically black campuses would finally receive the extra money and attention they need.
In Mississippi, the state responded to the Supreme Court decision by announcing that it wanted to close Mississippi Valley and send its students to predominantly white Delta State University, 35 miles away. There would also be some extra money for the two remaining historically black colleges, the state said, but the white institutions would lose nothing.
Late last year, the black plaintiffs and the federal government responded with their own plan, which shocked white Mississippi.
The proposal would take the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which is in the state capital of Jackson, 150 miles south of the Ole Miss main campus, and transfer it to predominantly black Jackson State University, three miles across town.
In Maryland, it would be akin to giving the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore to Morgan State University.
The plan would hand other popular programs to Jackson State, shifting undergraduate engineering from Ole Miss and architecture from Mississippi State.
There was even a suggestion that the state should pull Ole Miss and Mississippi State and their revered football teams out of the prestigious Southeastern Conference as a way of severing ties with the conference's segregated past.
Critics savaged the plan, saying that the medical school would ++ lose its accreditation if it were transferred to financially shaky Jackson State. The desegregation case, known as Ayers vs. Fordice, even figured in the recent election of a new student government president at Ole Miss. The leading candidate, who was white, was defeated, in large part because he came out in support of some of the plaintiffs' efforts, according to Anna Demarco, editor of the Ole Miss student newspaper.
"The consensus is, we don't want to see the state's schools reorganized," Ms. Demarco says. "Everybody here pretty much wants things to stay the way they are."
From far and wide
Supporters of the historically black colleges from around th country plan to come to Jackson for a rally April 30, two days before the trial is scheduled to start.
"Whatever happens in Mississippi will affect all of us in one way or the other," says Zachary McDaniels, head of the Coppin State College branch of the NAACP.
Several states are grappling with the implications of the 1992 Supreme Court case.
In Maryland, which is still under federal desegregation oversight, officials have tried to avoid creating new academic programs that might tend to prolong segregation at the state's four historically black colleges.
A federal appeals court in Alabama recently ordered a new trial on the issue of transferring some academic programs from Auburn University to Alabama A&M; University, a historically black institution.
In Mississippi, a crucial issue is Mississippi Valley State -- the poor stepchild of the state's higher education system. A mile from the tiny town of Itta Bena, the college is best known outside the state as the alma mater of football star Jerry Rice.
In Mississippi, the college is the place where thousands of black students have received an affordable education. Many came from impoverished delta areas and are the first in their families to go to college. "Some of us would have gone to white schools and fallen through the cracks real fast," said Raymond Williams, a Mississippi Valley graduate who now teaches mathematics and computer science there.
The college was underfunded for decades, and it shows. Many of the undistinguished, low-slung buildings need work. A fountain outside the president's modest office is permanently turned off. Even though it is built on fertile delta land, the campus has a barren feel, a stark contrast to the leafy magnificence of Ole Miss.
"After 40 years, I'm just now putting in shrubbery and trees," Dr. Sutton, the president, says.
'More at home here'
Dr. Sutton and others at Mississippi Valley concede that in an ideal world the college would never have been built. But now many blacks in the state need such a place to get into the higher education system.
"You feel a little more at home here," says Christopher Ingram, a black, 21-year-old junior from the small delta town of Ruleville. "Teachers take a little opportunity to get to know you a little better."
Over the winter, the two sides made sporadic efforts to settle the lawsuit. But their proposals are miles apart, and a trial appears inevitable.
A major stumbling block is the vagueness of the 1992 Supreme Court decision. The court said the state must carefully scrutinize its colleges, minimizing, for example, that kind of academic duplication that maintains "racial identifiability of its universities" and discourages integration.
But the court gave little guidance on how to do that.
"It's more complicated than a Gordian knot," says Dr. Turner at Ole Miss.
Already, 19 years have passed since the lawsuit was filed. One of the plaintiffs, Bennie Thompson, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Another, Louis Armstrong, is a member of the Jackson City Council.
If the court imposes a desegregation solution, it seems likely that the case will remain on appeal, as well as being a source of rancor, for Mississippians for many years.
Even so, the case has prompted some healthy soul-searching in the racially polarized state, says Anthony J. Chambers Jr., a black student at the Ole Miss medical school.
"For so long, it's just been a hush-hush issue," he says. "I think the case has provided a lot of hope for blacks."