Lillie Ayers, key figure in historic lawsuit, dies at 85

March 28, 2013 in Top Stories

JACKSON – Lillie B. Ayers, who became the lead plaintiff in Mississippi’s college desegregation lawsuit after the death of her husband, Jake Ayers, died Sunday at her home in Glen Allan in Washington County. She was 85.

Henry Ayers, Lillie Ayers’ son, said his mother died of complications from bone cancer.

President M. Christopher Brown II of Alcorn State University (pictured) said Lillie Ayers was “a beloved Mississippian and determined woman.” Both President Brown’s Ph.D. dissertation and his first book highlighted the Ayers litigation. (Photo courtesy of Alcorn State University)

Funeral services are pending.

Jake Ayers Sr. died in 1986, six years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Mississippi hadn’t done enough to eliminate segregation at its universities. Ayers filed the lawsuit against the state’s university system in 1975. It cited inequitable funding for the state’s three predominantly black universities – Jackson State, Alcorn State in Lorman and Mississippi Valley State in Itta Bena.

A settlement was finally approved in 2004 when appeals were exhausted.

Lillie Ayers had initially tried to opt out of the settlement but her efforts were denied by the courts.

She told The Associated Press in a 2001 interview that the settlement “doesn’t address the intent of my husband’s lawsuit.”

“It’s not about money,” she said. “It’s about equality.”

In 2004, she told The AP that the settlement would be beneficial.

“The schools did get some money. We didn’t get 100 percent of what we asked for but we got something, so it wasn’t a total loss,” she said.

Henry Ayers said Monday that while his mother did not initially embrace the settlement she “came to the point where she was satisfied.”

“She was always concerned about what was going on in the college community. She saw Mississippi Valley State as something for black kids who couldn’t afford to go to Ole Miss or Mississippi State and who didn’t have the education background from small school to go right into a big university.

“She also thought the College Board was more interested in closing Mississippi Valley State,” Henry Ayers said.

M. Christopher Brown II, president of Alcorn State, offered condolences to her family on behalf of the university.

“May they be strengthened and comforted by the knowledge that her legacy will live on in our graduates, staff, and infrastructure,” Brown said in a statement.

Both President Brown’s Ph.D. dissertation and his first book

– “The Quest to Define Collegiate Desegregation: Black Colleges, Title VI Compliance, and Post-Adams Litigation” – highlighted the Ayers litigation, which was settled in 2004 in Mississippi. Alcorn has expanded campus facilities, academic degree offerings, and increased both student and staff diversity as a result of the Ayers Settlement.

“Mrs. Ayers was indeed a great individual who believed in fair funding for each of the eight public institutions in the state. Alcorn recognizes and appreciates the sacrifices she and her husband made on behalf of the families of Mississippi,” he said.

Brown honored Jake Ayers Sr. posthumously at Alcorn’s 2011 Founders Day with the Presidential Citation Award.

Henry Ayers described his mother as “an independent women who loved her children, loved her husband and loved her freedom.”

“She was a person who would stand up for what she knew was right and would seek a solution to the problem. She was a strong lady with dignity who never wanted to be a burden to anyone,” he said.

Survivors include eight sons and a daughter and several grandchildren.