OXFORD, MISS. -- It is hard to imagine the events of Sept. 30, 1962, happening on American soil.
Spurred by Mississippi’s flamboyant segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett, an estimated 2,000 students and outsiders, many of them armed, stormed the University of Mississippi to block James Meredith, the first African American student admitted to Ole Miss., from attending class.
President John F. Kennedy sent some 300 federal marshals and 30,000 troops to restore peace to the university and the town of Oxford, and uphold a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing Meredith to be admitted. Two people died, including a French journalist, and at least 300 were injured.
Monday, Oct. 1, marked the 50th anniversary of Meredith’s first day as a student at Ole Miss, and the culmination of “50 Years of Integration: Opening the Closed Society”, a year-long celebration of the university’s integration.
A speech by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a candlelit prayer walk, tributes to the U.S. Marshals, the U.S. Army, and to Meredith himself, who graduated the next year, marked the historical passing, as did a speech by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte.
“I am thankful beyond words for the U.S. Marshal Service keeping my father alive so that I could have these last 50 years with him, and his grandchildren could know and love him as more than just words in a history book,” said John Meredith, 52 , his voice wavering for a moment, as the gray-haired men looked on.
Today, Ole Miss is a mix of fresh-faced students rushing back and forth to classes seemingly oblivious to the past. Its student body president is an African-American woman and a member of Phi Mu, a white sorority. The school just elected its first African-American homecoming queen.
Long gone are its Confederate flag and Colonel Rebel mascot, replaced with the Ole Miss Black Bear. Today stands the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, named after the former governor who was honored with a Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation.
“I think that was a lesson we may not have been able to learn, but for the violence at Ole Miss,” said Winter, 89, an Ole Miss alumnus, talking of “responsible” white Southerners.
Whatever might be said of Ole Miss, arguably no academic institution has had so far to travel.
As one who experienced the hatred as a student from 1980-1984, and participated in peaceful protests and sit-ins decrying the Confederate flag as the university symbol, I can tell you the process was painful and gut wrenching. Threats against the school’s first black cheerleader, a curfew, visits to Oxford by the Ku Klux Klan in support of the flag, were all mileposts on the journey prompting the university to choose a new direction.
A peace and freedom, which many believed impossible, exists today. How this happened is a lesson in the leadership and moral courage of students, faculty and university leaders, black and white, who ultimately transformed an institution.
At Ole Miss the past and the present are intertwined like few places in America, from the statue of the Confederate soldier in the center of the campus, to the statue of Meredith behind the Lyceum, the administration building that took fire during those riots 50 years ago.
The Winter Institute is housed in Vardaman Hall, named after James K. Vardaman, elected Mississippi’s governor in 1903, and later a U.S. senator. Vardaman was crystal clear on the subject of race: “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”