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March 14, 2009
"Hey, didn''t you say you were on Paul Harvey?" Nancy Perkins asked her husband when she heard news of the radio broadcaster''s death recently.
Charles Perkins recalled being mentioned on Harvey''s show three times back in 1971 after he had unsuccessfully tried to enroll in art classes at Mississippi State College for Women. At the time Mississippi State only offered courses in art history and he, like many others, thought The W had the best art department in the state.
Perkins'' name popped in a presentation given by Mona Vance Thursday after the 125th birthday celebration for Mississippi University for Women at Rent Auditorium.
Vance, now archivist at the Columbus Public Library, wrote her masters thesis on Mississippi University for Women v. Joe Hogan, the 1982 Supreme Court landmark case that admitted men to the school.
In addition to setting a legal precedent and forever changing the face--and perhaps the fate--of The W, the story has an intriguing cast of characters: Hogan, a shadowy figure, made history and then virtually disappeared after two semesters. The case, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, pitted an earnest young African-American attorney with barely enough legal tenure to go before the court against an eloquent and seasoned counselor who had made his career as an advocate for establishment causes. Sandra Day O''Connor, the first woman justice, had just been appointed to the court, and there was much speculation as to whether she would side with the all-women''s institution. (She did not. O''Connor wrote the majority opinion.)
Wilbur Colom argued the case for Hogan; the late Hunter Gholson represented The W. You can hear a recording of the two attorneys making their oral arguments (52 minutes, total) and the justices'' responses at www.oyex.org (March 22, 1982).
At Federal District Court in Aberdeen, Judge L.T. Senter in December 1980 ruled in favor of The W. In June 1981 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overturned Senter''s ruling.
Already a registered nurse, Hogan was married and working full time at Golden Triangle Regional Hospital. He entered in the fall of ''81 taking 18 hours of classes. Hogan withdrew from classes in October. In January he re-enrolled, completing only two non-nursing courses.
Hogan was the subject of ridicule from his fellow students. A photograph accompanying a story on him in the April 11, 1982, Philadelphia Inquirer shows what looks to be a typical male college student sitting alone on one side of a classroom, while female students are clustered on the opposite side of the room.
Vance said Hogan eventually divorced and moved to Iowa. Colom said he spoke with his former client sometime before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Hogan was then living in New Orleans and working as a surgical anesthesiologist, Colom said.
Colom, then 32, couldn''t sign the briefs submitted to the high court because at the time of their filing he hadn''t practiced law for the required five years. In February, one month before the oral arguments were to be made, Colom hit his fifth-year mark.
"I barely slid in," he said.
Colom said he wasn''t nervous appearing before the Supreme Court. He had worked as an intern while attending Antioch School of Law in the District of Columbia and knew most of the justices.
Colom said he had no idea going in how the case would turn out. "I knew it was going to be close," he said. "The only thing you can do is lose it," he said about appearing before the high court. "My goal was to survive; I had won it at the Fifth Circuit."
Gholson addressed the court first. He had a difficult case. Men were already able to audit courses at the school. Leadership of The W was predominantly male. Gholson''s frequent references to President James Strobel and Vice President Harvey Craft seemed to contradict the stated purposes of a female-only institution. Gholson argued The W provided affirmative action for women.
O''Connor writing for the court said The W''s arguments were unpersuasive since women dominated the field of nursing and that if affirmative action is needed in that field, it is for men.
"I thought The W''s reliance on tradition (in their arguments) was almost fatal," said Colom. "I thought they should have recast their arguments in a modern-day light."
Colom''s comments could just as easily apply to the ongoing name-change saga.
Years later Judge Senter pulled Colom aside. "I''m glad they overturned me," Senter said to Colom. The Aberdeen judge confided that one of his sons was partying too much at Ole Miss. "I''m sending him to The W," he said.
Perkins, who owns a frame shop on Main Street, has managed to find a career in art despite being denied admission to the school. He harbors no grudges.
He said during his brief quest for enrollment, he faced a number of physical threats, including threatening phone calls and a brick thrown through his window. Then MUW President Charles P. Hogarth consulted with Perkins, offering advice on how he might break through the single-sex barrier. "Hogarth wanted this to go through," Perkins said. "We were meeting secretly in his office," he said.
Good things come to those who wait, though. Charles and Nancy Perkins'' son, Charles Perkins Jr. (Bryant), graduated from MUW in 2000.
Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at [email protected]
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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