The Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. In a scene reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights era, thousands marched Saturday to protest plans to close a traditionally black university as a means of ending segregation.

Intermittent rain that later turned into a downpour sped up the pace of the march, but didn't appear to dampen enthusiasm.

"We are sending a loud and clear message that we're not going to take this sitting down," Mississippi NAACP president Bea Branch said.

In response to a 1975 lawsuit claiming students didn't receive equal opportunities at the state-run black schools, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that Mississippi's public universities continued to be run as segregated institutions.

The State College Board responded with plans to shut down traditionally black Mississippi Valley State University and merge its operations with historically white Delta State. Among other moves, the plan also would shift some programs from largely white schools among other state schools.

Opponents want no school closures, just better programs at black schools.

The march began at Jackson State University near downtown. The mostly black crowd stopped for a prayer outside the Masonic Temple before moving on for a rally on the grounds of the state Capitol.

Up to 10,000 people attended, rivaling the numbers who protested in Jackson during the civil rights era 30 years ago. Organizers said the preservation of the predominantly black schools is a similar struggle.

Marchers carried banners reading "It's about equity in education" and "Save H.B.C.U" (historically black colleges and universities).

The Supreme Court, in sending the case back to a federal judge in Mississippi, said any reorganization of higher education should consider admission standards, the number of schools, the college's missions and duplication of programs.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. will begin hearing arguments May 9. The college board wants its plan approved. Black plaintiffs want to shift more programs from historically white universities to the predominantly black institutions.

Benjamin Chavis Jr., executive director of the national NAACP, said if the state closes down or reduces the size of predominately black schools, it will set a bad example.

"It's ironic to witness the dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa and here in the United States in the South land of Mississippi, it appears the state wants to erect a new form of apartheid," he said.

"We didn't tolerate it in South Africa and we won't tolerate it in Mississippi," Chavis said.

The legal challenge was filed in 1975 by the late Jake Ayers Sr., who said his son and other black students lacked educational opptunities available at the white institutions.

Students from the 6,300-student predominantly black college are already taking their complaints to the College Board, staging daily demonstrations at the board office. Those demonstrations have led to arrests but no violence.

William F. Gibson, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's board of directors, said the civil rights organization will back the case with all of its resources. Read Next Article