The Mississippi Senate gave overwhelming approval Friday to a resolution endorsing a settlement of a 27-year-old fight to desegregate universities, signaling a possible end to the case.
The Senate vote was 33-10 and came two days after House members voted 100-20 to adopt the same resolution.
"It's a really big, historical day for the citizens of Mississippi,'' Attorney General Mike Moore said shortly after the Senate action. "This is important because we are settling a very old case that's been very divisive.''
Moore said the resolution will be put in the hands of U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers and "he will issue an order and this case will be over for all intents and purposes.''
Senators wrangled for nearly three hours over whether to support the $503 million proposed settlement. Proponents said Biggers gave the Legislature a chance to endorse the settlement and that ending the case was the best for all concerned. Opponents said the state may have bartered in good faith, but the settlement was flawed and expensive.
Biggers said he would approve the settlement only if lawmakers demonstrate they support it financially.
It would be paid over 17 years with some money coming from private endowments.
Plaintiffs not associated with the settlement have said they will appeal.
The lawsuit was filed in 1975 by the Jake Ayers, the father of a black college student. It said Mississippi has neglected its three historically black universities for decades. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in 1992 and ordered remedies.
"The completion of the Ayers case is a defining moment in our state's history,'' Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said Friday. "I am glad the Legislature responded to my request to settle this matter this week. They are to be commended.''
The resolution does not have to go to the governor for approval. Musgrove had called the parties in the lawsuit together more than a year ago and urged them to settle the case.
Senate President Pro Tempore Travis Little, D-Corinth, said the case has been a distraction for lawmakers and the College Board. He said senators had the opportunity to bring the case to a close.
"Consider the fairness of this and the closure _ there is something to be said for that,'' Little said.
Opponents, led by Sens. Billy Hewes III, R-Gulfport, and Ron Farris, R-Hattiesburg, said they found Biggers troubled by the settlement. They said if Biggers had a better plan, and a cheaper one, lawmakers should let him do it.
"The decision should be made where it originated, in the court,'' Hewes said.
Farris said the settlement sets meager goals and spends $500 million to accomplish them.
Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton, said she and other black lawmakers weren't happy with all aspects of the settlement.
"The five historically white universities have run a marathon every day,'' Blackmon said. "I do know the historically black universities' ... hands have been tied for 25 years. Enough should be enough.
"Those institutions were created because you did not want to go to school with us. You took off the chains and now you say run a marathon. It can't happen unless you make a commitment to put some programs, put some facilities, put some money in these institutions,'' Blackmon said.
Farris said the cost of the settlement will continue after the 17-year life of the payout. He said many costs will be built into the universities system, putting a bigger drain on the budget. He said leaving Biggers alone to implement a court-ordered plan was a wiser move.
"He is saying it will be much less than what we have in the settlement ... that is what he is trying to do,'' Farris said.
The settlement would provide funds for academic programs at the traditionally black institutions, campus improvement and public and private endowments.
"We think the programs in this settlement agreement and other provisions will in fact advance the objectives of desegregating the system,'' said Higher Education Commissioner Tom Layzell.
"That has already started even with the money spent already and we think if it will continue.''