Chambliss, Alvin O.

views updated

Alvin O. Chambliss

Lawyer, civil rights activist

Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. is best known for his legal work over nearly thirty years in the Ayers v. Barbour case, which sought to remedy inequalities rooted in past segregation of higher education in his home state of Mississippi. As a result of his involvement in what has become one of the longest running civil rights cases in history, he has been described as the last original civil rights attorney in the United States, displaying unusual stamina, commitment, and determination in pursuing justice for African Americans seeking educational opportunities in traditionally white institutions as well as equitable support of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Alvin Odell Chambers Jr. was born on January 22, 1944, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Ledorsha and Alvin Odell Chambliss Sr. As one of twelve children, Alvin Jr. grew up poor in Columbia, Mississippi, located in the south central part of the state. Despite the personal and family challenges, Alvin Jr. and his siblings were instilled with a passion for education and self-improvement by their parents and especially their grandmother, Elizabeth Chambliss, who courageously provided assistance to civil rights workers in Mississippi during the 1960s.

Another important early mentor to Chambliss was his high school principal, C. J. Duckworth, an educator who later became president of both the Mississippi Teachers Association and American Teachers Association. He inspired Chambliss, as well as many other students, to go to college and beyond, believing that education was the key to survival for blacks and minorities. As a result, 85 percent of his students went to college, trade schools, or the military upon graduation.


Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on January 22
Earns B.A. from Jackson State University
Receives J.D. from Howard University
Completes master of law degree from University of California
Marries Josephine Johnson on December 31
Begins work with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services
Becomes lead attorney for plaintiffs in Ayers v. Fordice
Argues case April 17 to June 1; ruling for defendants on December 10
Continues litigation after appeals court also rules in favor of defendants
Argues case before U.S. Supreme Court
Wins legal victory when U.S. Supreme Court rules for retrial of case
Argues case for plaintiffs in second trial
Loses job; becomes law professor at Texas Southern University
Wins Trial Lawyer of the Year Award; loses job at Texas Southern
Appeals $503 million Ayers case settlement as inadequate
Joins faculty of Indiana University as distinguished visiting professor
U.S. Supreme Court denies final appeal, ending Ayers case

Pursues Higher Education

Chambliss also demonstrated athletic talent in football during his high school years and continued to play the game after graduating from Columbia High School in 1962, becoming a star linebacker at Jackson State University. Among the hometown athletes he influenced were future Chicago Bears and National Football League Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton and his brother Eddie, who also played professionally in the NFL, after outstanding college careers at Jackson State.

During his years at Jackson State University, located in the state capitol, Chambliss was directly influenced by and involved in the turmoil and change brought about by the civil rights movement. The state became the setting for historic events such as the desegregation of the University of Mississippi by U.S. Army veteran and former Jackson State student James Meredith in 1962; the murder of Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP in 1963; and the murders of volunteer civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner during what became known as the Freedom Summer of 1964. Chambliss's mentors at the time included Fannie Lou Hamer and Lawrence Guyot, leaders and organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, which championed black voting rights and challenged the segregated Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic national convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

After graduation from Jackson State in 1967 with a bachelor of arts degree in history, Chambliss decided to forego a possible career in professional football and applied to law school in hopes of becoming an attorney. He was admitted to the law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he came in contact with such noted persons as Thurgood Marshall, the legendary civil rights attorney who became the first African American appointed as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Howard Moore, the attorney who represented champion boxer Muhammad Ali and activist Julian Bond. As a law student, Chambliss assisted Howard law professor Herbert O. Reid in the successful defense of Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell against charges of tax evasion.

Chambliss received the juris doctorate from Howard in 1970 then continued his legal studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was awarded a master's of law degree in 1972. On December 31, 1973, he married Josephine Johnson. The couple had three children, Sadarie, Alvin O. III, and Alvenia. His early professional work in law included providing legal counsel to the National Conference of Black Mayors; Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity); Legal Aid Society of Alameda County, California; New Orleans Legal Assistance; and the Cohon, Jones, and Fazande law firm.

Returns to Mississippi and the Ayers Case

In 1974, Chambliss began work as an attorney for North Mississippi Rural Legal Services (NMRLS), headquartered in Oxford. The agency, supported by federal funds, eventually expanded to thirteen offices serving poor and elderly residents of thirty-nine counties in the northern portion of the state. Founded in 1966, NMRLS saw its status change to an independent non-profit corporation as a result of the creation of the national Legal Services Corporation (LSC) by the government in the same year Chambliss returned to work in his home state. During its prime years, NMRLS had a budget of over $3 million and over one hundred employees, including thirty-two lawyers.

The following year, Chambliss became the lead attorney in the Ayers case, which became a landmark in civil rights and higher education litigation. The case was originally filed against the state of Mississippi in January 1975 by Jake Ayers Sr., a civil rights activist from Glen Allan, Mississippi, on behalf of his son and twenty-one other black college students representing the African American citizens of the state.

The intent of the lawsuit was to hold the state of Mississippi accountable for past and present injustices and inequities in its publicly funded, state-supported historically black colleges and universities, as compared to its traditionally white public institutions. Chambliss argued in numerous legal briefs and court appearances that the state had an obligation to make meaningful efforts to provide substantial resources to remedy the ongoing negative impact of discriminatory policies and practices on African American citizens involved in its public higher education system.

In the early and mid-1980s, efforts to reach a comprehensive, out-of-court settlement of the case were unsuccessful. The persistence of Chambliss and others led to the case finally going to trial before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi in April 1987. Jake Ayers died in 1986 without seeing the case named for him go to a courtroom setting, which provided an additional incentive for Chambliss and others to continue their efforts. When the trial proceedings ended after five weeks, the attorneys, plaintiffs, and defendants waited several months for the ruling of the court. On December 10, 1987, the court decided in favor of the state of Mississippi and dismissed the case. The judge agreed with the attorneys representing the state, who argued that reasonable desegregation of public higher education had been accomplished in the twenty-five years since 1962, when the University of Mississippi admitted James Meredith as its first African American student.

Chambliss and his team immediately set in motion the process to appeal the district court decision. Even with the ongoing demands of the Ayers case, Chambliss devoted time to involvement in national politics, attending the 1988 Democratic national convention in Atlanta, Georgia, as a delegate supporting African American presidential candidate Jesse Jackson.

Appeals Ayers Case to Higher Courts

Chambliss and his legal team appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which reversed and then affirmed the decision of the U.S. District Court. They eventually filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rendered a decision in favor of the Ayers plaintiffs in 1992, sending the case back to the U.S. District Court. The second trial took place over ten weeks in 1994. The 1995 decision by the court favored the plaintiffs on some issues and the defendants on others, including keeping all of Mississippi's eight universities open after the state indicated it was considering the closing of Mississippi Valley State University, an HBCU, and Mississippi University for Women, a traditionally white institution. Revised admissions standards for all Mississippi universities, and improvement of academic programs and funding at Jackson State University, Alcorn State University, and Mississippi Valley State University were also included as objectives to be met by the state.

The legal victory came at great personal sacrifice, as Chambliss had virtually become bankrupt. In addition to the extensive amount of time he spent on the Ayers case, his wife became ill, he had to fight to maintain his home, and he was suspended without pay before being dismissed from his job at North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. The contention was that Chambliss had used excessive amounts of NMRLS resources on the Ayers case, to the detriment of other legal activities. It was also possible that he would not be paid for his 1,300 hours of legal work in connection with the case over twenty-one years, if the ruling in the case was not upheld.

Problems for NMRLS were further compounded in 1996, when Congress cut funding for public legal services by more than 30 percent and placed additional regulations and restrictions on the types of legal services made available to citizens with federal funds. As a result, many NMRLS colleagues of Chambliss were laid off, and the number of branch offices was reduced to five locations in later years.

Recognition for Work and Relocation to Texas

Appreciation for the hard work of Chambliss came in the form of numerous awards from such diverse organizations as the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Mississippi Education Association, the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, the Prince Hall Masonic Orders of North Mississippi, and the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. Despite these many recognitions of his efforts and abilities, he still faced financial constraints and problems in providing for his family. As a result, Chambliss was forced to make career moves which brought a level of financial stability and resolve personal challenges, while still maintaining his commitment to the Ayers case.

Chambliss accepted a position as a professor in the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in 1995 and relocated to Houston, Texas. He taught courses in civil rights enforcement, federal court practice, and appellate litigation, areas in which he had both practical and theoretical knowledge. His legal expertise was called upon in the resolution of the case involving desegregation of higher education in Texas, which led to increased funding for Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M University, the state's two public HBCUs. In addition to this work Chambliss also represented the family of James Byrd Sr. of Jasper, Texas, the victim of a hate crime-related murder in 1998 which drew international attention and developed a street law program acclaimed by the Texas Supreme Court for involving more than forty Houston schools in its mock trial activities.

Continues to Represent Ayers Family and Rejects Case Settlement

While no longer representing the NMRLS, Chambliss continued his involvement in the case as a private attorney representing Lillie Ayers, the widow of Jake Ayers, and other plaintiffs, including professors and alumni from Mississippi HBCUs. In 1996, original plaintiff Bennie Thompson, who had become the U.S. congressman for Mississippi's second district, was designated by the district court as the lead plaintiff in the case. Chambliss was replaced as lead attorney by Isaac Byrd.

After the 1995 court ruling, Chambliss walked away from a potential $3.5 million payday in legal fees because he did not agree to a proposed settlement of the case by the state. Two years later, a second offer to settle the case for $2.5 million was also rejected by Chambliss. He indicated that both offers were payoff attempts intended to end his involvement in the case, and he continued to press for his clients.

In 2000, the district court ordered the parties involved in the case to come together and work out a settlement agreement. In addition to the plaintiffs represented by Chambliss and Byrd, the United States government was an intervenor in the case against the state of Mississippi. On March 29, 2001, all of the parties, with the exception of the plaintiffs represented by Chambliss who were not included in the settlement negotiations, signed a settlement agreement in the amount of $503 million over a period of seventeen years.

More Appeals, Challenges, and Life Changes

Chambliss filed yet another series of appeals, contesting the fairness of the settlement. In 2002, shortly after he was given the Trial Lawyer of the Year award by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, he was told that his contract would not be renewed at Texas Southern. He had not been negatively evaluated for his work as a professor in the law school, but his continued involvement in appealing the Ayers settlement left the impression that his dismissal may have been politically motivated. The appeals were preventing the settlement agreement from going into effect and bringing a final resolution to the case.

Chambliss contended that the settlement did not do enough to provide equal educational opportunities for African Americans in all of Mississippi's public higher education institutions. He noted that it did not provide enough funding to equalize programs, facilities, and other resources in the state's three HBCUs, and contested the designation of $246 million for the purpose of attracting white students to the HBCU campuses, which the state finally acknowledged had been neglected and under funded from the era of segregation through the last decades of the twentieth century.

In 2003, Chambliss and his new legal team presented his appeal of the case before the court of appeals in New Orleans, after overcoming such obstacles as missing court records, going through unrelated documents and paperwork included in requests for specific and pertinent information, the short timeline between preparation and presentation, and inadequate funding to support his colleagues. Several attorneys volunteered to assist Chambliss and worked nearly nonstop in the thirty days before the court hearing.

Chambliss and his colleagues were successful in their efforts, and the New Orleans hearing on November 3 drew significant national media attention when students, educators, and activists from all over the nation came to the city in support of the Ayers appeal. Despite an outstanding presentation by Chambliss, in which he argued the case citing legal documents and precedents, including the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, Plessey v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the court did not reverse the settlement agreement in its January 2004 ruling. Chambliss then appealed the case to the court of last resort, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chambliss again was forced to deal with personal, professional, and financial challenges after losing his professorship. Even though he was no longer employed at Texas Southern, he still retained ties to the institution. In May 2004 he celebrated as his son and daughter in-law became graduates of the university. Alvin III received a degree in biology, and Miriam was ranked fourth of 150 receiving the J.D. degree from the law school.

While waiting on the final appeal of the Ayers case, Chambliss was interviewed by journalists from various news media and invited to speak in a variety of settings about the case and its implications. He lectured at Indiana University, where he eventually accepted a position as distinguished visiting professor in the School of Education and Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. In October 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of the Ayers settlement agreement, ending the case he had been involved with for nearly thirty years.

Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. made history through his unwavering commitment to the legal and social struggle for the educational advancement of African Americans. Paula Powell of the National Association of African American Students noted that Chambliss should be considered a hero of his times, and the publication Black Issues in Higher Education agreed, when it recognized him as being one of the most significant African Americans in the last one hundred years.



Upchurch, Thomas Adams. "Ayers Case, 112 S.Ct. 2727 (1992)." In The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Civil Rights. Ed. Charles D. Lowery and John F. Marszalek. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

York, Jennifer M., ed. Who's Who Among African Americans. 17th ed. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.


Brazington, John. "Black College Lawsuit." Philadelphia Tribune, 22 November 1991.

Brown, Riva. "'75 Ayers Suit Officially Ends; High Court Won't Hear Appeal.", 19 October 2004.

Cannon, Carole. "Supreme Court Decision Ends Ayers Case Saga. "Mississippi Link, 21-27 October 2004.

Covington, Artelia C. "Troubles Deepen for Education Crusader Alvin Chambliss." New York Beacon, 9 October 2002.


Indiana University Media Relations. "Alvin Chambliss, One of the Original Civil Rights Lawyers, Joins IU Faculty." September 30, 2004. (Accessed 13 January 2005).

McBride, Earnest. "Ayers Case Now in Hands of Fifth Circuit." Jackson Advocate, 2003. (Accessed 13 January 2005).

North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. "History of NMRLS." (Accessed 3 February 2005).

Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. "Isaac Byrd of Mississippi, Armand Derfner of South Carolina, Bob Pressman of Massachusetts, and Alvin Chambliss of Texas Win 2002 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award." (Accessed 13 January 2005).


Chambliss, Alvin. E-mail to author, 1 February 2005.

                                    Fletcher F. Moon

About this article

Chambliss, Alvin O.

Updated About content Print Article